Senate prayer draws ACLU's criticism

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Lawmakers met Tuesday for what is known as Organization Day, the first day of its 2008 session.

But the mostly ceremonial day wasn't without drama because the opening moments of one legislative body have sparked threats of a potential lawsuit reminiscent of a two-year-old federal suit that continues playing out in appeals. Indiana may soon see the second round of a legal battle involving legislative prayer.

The Indiana Senate opened its proceedings with a prayer to Jesus Christ, with Senate President Pro Tempore David Long allowing a colleague to pray from the chamber's podium. Within a day, that sparked legal threats from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which had sued the House and then-Speaker Brian Bosma over a similar practice.

Ken Falk, legal director for the civil liberties organization, said that if the Senate continues using a prayer naming Jesus Christ, the group would likely be forced to sue on behalf of anyone subjected to or offended by the prayers.

"Everyone who stands at that podium knows that there are people who aren't praying in that fashion or share that religious belief. It's extremely rude for a legislator to issue a prayer that's exclusive in an area of the state that's supposed to be inclusive to everyone in Indiana."

The fact that the previous suit against the House is ongoing should have been further reason for the Senate to not issue a sectarian prayer, Falk said.

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton in Indianapolis ruled that sectarian prayers or those focusing on a particular religion weren't allowed, though the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decided last month that the taxpayers didn't have standing to sue and ordered the suit be dismissed on procedural grounds. However, the suit continues as the ACLU of Indiana is asking the appellate court to rehear the case en banc, possibly to get at the merits of the case.

The ACLU filed a request last week, and the Attorney General's Office has until mid-December to file a reply brief with the court.

In the meantime, legislative leaders in the House have taken the advice of Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter and used a non-sectarian prayer to start its proceedings.

"It's important to do that in order to comply with the order that's still in place from the District Court," Carter said. "While the 7th Circuit ordered it be lifted, the plaintiffs have filed for en banc review, which has the effect of staying the direction to the District Court."

Carter said that while the House is still under that original restriction, and the current Speaker's prayer was in compliance, the Senate isn't subject to any limitations and isn't involved in the ongoing litigation.

Falk agreed that the Senate was never constrained, but he said this type of prayer was exactly what Judge Hamilton had ruled against and that it wouldn't be allowed if a higher court eventually upholds that ruling.

"When we strip away the law and standing issues, it's just impolite and downright rude," Falk said. "If either body of the legislature begins sectarian prayers and we fall back into that pattern, we're back where we started."

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