A presidential proclamation welcoming May as “Jewish American Heritage Month” appears to break recent precedent by omitting the formulaic phrase “in the year of our Lord” in its closing paragraph.
The move drew praise from some Jewish leaders, who said they weren’t aware of it until being notified by the New Jersey Jewish News.
According to the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the phrase “in the year of our Lord,” regularly appended to White House proclamations, indicates “a year as reckoned from the birth of Jesus.”
The proclamation, signed by President Barack Obama and released on April 30, praises the Jewish community for its contributions to America’s “national culture” and declares May a month “to celebrate the heritage and contributions of Jewish Americans.”
Unlike a similar declaration Obama issued in 2009, and annual Jewish Heritage Week proclamations issued by Bill Clinton and, later, Jewish American Heritage Month proclamations by George W. Bush, the proclamation does not end in the standard formula “in the year of our Lord” preceding the year.
Instead, the final paragraph refers merely to the “thirtieth day of April, in the year two thousand ten.”
Recent proclamations concerning other subjects, including the National Day of Prayer (April 30) and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (April 29) continue to carry the phrase “in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten.”
Marc Stern, the acting executive director of the American Jewish Congress and an expert on the Establishment Clause, said the practice of including the phrase “in the year of our Lord” on government documents has always been an “awkward” legal issue.
On one hand, the reference to the birth of Jesus Christ appears to run afoul of Supreme Court decisions concerning the separation of church and state.
On the other hand, advocates of church-state separation have not chosen to “make a fuss” over the phrase. Stern could think of only one or two cases in which the phrase has been challenged, and those have been resolved when officials agreed to remove the phrase from the proclamations in question.
“In general, if you would ask people [who support strict separation] they would say it is inappropriate,” said Stern. “On the other hand, if you ask, ‘Do you care this is there,’ most would shrug their shoulders. It’s a sort of contradictory attitude.”
Stern welcomed the phrase’s omission from the proclamation of Jewish Heritage Month.
“It is a good and sensitive gesture that does not change the course of American church-state relations,” he said.
Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs and associate director of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League, said the ADL has never pressed for the phrase’s omission, but welcomed it nonetheless.
“We see it as a welcome, sensitive, and attentive gesture,” said Freeman. “It demonstrates sensitivity which we appreciate.”
Brandon Rottinghaus, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston, said the phrase “in the year of our Lord” has been part of presidential proclamations at least since the Truman administration. Rottinghaus, who maintains a database on presidential proclamations, said he wasn’t aware of it being omitted on proclamations since then.
Past proclamations including the phrase included one by Clinton mourning the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (November 4, 1995) and another marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (March 21, 2002).
The Obama administration has been caught in the crosshairs recently involving both its relations with the Jewish community and over church-state affairs.
White House officials have recently reached out to Jewish leaders to smooth relations ruffled by disagreements over the administration’s strained relations with Israel.
The Obama administration also had to quash rumors that it was cancelling its endorsement of the National Day of Prayer, scheduled for May 6, after a U.S. district judge in Wisconsin ruled it unconstitutional. In the presidential proclamation declaring the National Day of Prayer, Obama called on Americans to “give thanks for the many blessings God has bestowed upon our nation.”
The White House did not return calls seeking comment.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to "Jewish American Heritage Month" proclamations by Bill Clinton. In fact, May was not declared Jewish American Heritage Month until 2006; prior to that, presidents issued proclamations declaring "Jewish Heritage Week." The article has been changed to reflect this information.