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ACLU: Full court should rehear prayer case

November 15, 2007

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana wants the full 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a case involving legislative prayer.

The civil liberties organization Wednesday filed a petition for rehearing en banc in Anthony Hinrichs v. Speaker of the House of Representatives, No. 1:05-cv-00813. This request comes about two weeks after a three-judge circuit panel ruled that plaintiffs didn't have standing to sue lawmakers over legislative prayer and ordered that the federal suit be dismissed.

The Hoosier ACLU had sued in May 2005 on behalf of four people who objected to the practice of opening each legislative session with a prayer. U.S. District Judge David Hamilton in the Southern District of Indiana ruled that invocations offered in the Indiana House of Representatives could not mention Jesus Christ or use Christian terms such as savior because they amount to state endorsement of a religion.

But the Oct. 30 7th Circuit ruling reversed the District Court decision, though it didn't touch on the merits of the case.

In its decision, Circuit Judges Kenneth Ripple and Michael Kanne in the majority noted that the legislative practice isn't mandated by statute and that plaintiffs weren't able to point to any specific amount of money spent on the practice and that other than costs related to broadcasting online, nothing spent was directly related to the content of the prayers provided.

But legal counsel Ken Falk disagrees, writing that the panel's decision conflicts with precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States and its own past decisions.

"Consideration by the full court is therefore necessary to secure and maintain uniformity of the court's decisions," the 22-page brief says, delving into several cases it says were misinterpreted. "The panel decision has overruled the requirements for state taxpayer standing as developed by the Supreme Court ... This is beyond the prerogative of this Court and en banc review must be granted to remedy this error."

Falk notes that the plaintiff-taxpayers have brought a "good faith pocketbook action" to challenge clear Establishment Clause violations and have standing to sue.

Judge Diane Wood was the sole dissenter on the original panel and argued her colleagues overextended caselaw and denied plaintiffs a day in court. It would take a majority of the 11 active judges to rehear the case before the full court.

No clear timeline exists for the court to consider the request, but it could ask the state to submit a response brief. Both sides have said previously they expect this case to eventually be appealed to the nation's highest court.

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