ICLU and Indiana Citizens Challenge Sectarian Prayers in State House

Affiliate: ACLU of Indiana
May 31, 2005 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Indiana
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Contact: media@aclu.org

INDIANAPOLIS — Acting on behalf of a retired Methodist minister, a lobbyist for a statewide Quaker group and two Roman Catholic citizens, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit asking that the Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives be blocked from the practice of opening House sessions with sectarian and proselytizing prayers.

“The lawsuit does not seek to prevent opening the House session with prayers, but asks that the prayers be offered in a non-sectarian manner consistent with respect for the beliefs of all Indiana residents and the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom for all,” said ICLU Legal Director Kenneth J. Falk. “Our lawmakers represent every Indiana citizen, so it is myopic to not see that this type of prayer will exclude and alienate some Hoosiers.”

On dozens of occasions during the 2005 session of the Indiana General Assembly, visiting ministers or legislators themselves offered prayers with a heavy Christian emphasis that invoked Jesus Christ. Although in the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers the United States Supreme Court allowed non-sectarian prayers to begin legislative sessions, the ICLU charged that the Indiana practice far exceeds what was allowed by the Court.

On April 5, after an invocation that included the statement, “I thank you Jesus for dying for me,” the Speaker of the House announced that the minister “is going to bless us with a song.” The minister proceeded to sing, “Just A Little Talk With Jesus” and legislators and onlookers were prompted to stand, clap and sing along. During the hymn, several House members walked out of the chamber in protest, and at least one lobbyist attempted to leave the gallery area but was barred from doing so by a House employee. The Indianapolis Star published a photo of this incident the next day.

Following the April 5 prayer and hymn, Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis professor Mary Harter Mitchell wrote to the Speaker of the House noting the unconstitutionality of the practice. Roman Catholic activist Lynette Herold, one of the Indiana residents represented in today’s lawsuit, sent her objections to the Speaker via e-mail. Neither message received a reply.

In addition to Herold, the plaintiffs in the case of Hinrichs et al. v. Speaker of the House are Anthony Hinrichs, a registered lobbyist for the Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation and a Quaker; the Rev. Henry Gerner, an ordained minister and retired member of the South Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church; and Fran Quigley, a Roman Catholic and the executive director of the ICLU. All of the plaintiffs object to the exclusionary nature of the prayers and fear that the practice will discourage diversity within Indiana.

Dr. Clark Williamson, Indiana Professor of Christian Thought, Emeritus, Christian Theological Seminary, is one of several local Christian theologians who have criticized the Indiana House practice.

“Ever since the first Baptist was imprisoned for contravening the dictates of the then-established church in Massachusetts, Christians in America have understood the importance of letting the state be the state and the church be the church,” said Rev. Williamson. “That the Indiana House of Representatives allows sectarian prayers and hymns in its sessions turns the state of Indiana into a theologian, something it is ill-equipped to be.”

Dr. Edgar Towne, a Presbyterian minister and professor emeritus of theology at Christian Theological Seminary, added, “Christians ought to be courteous enough to respect other people’s faiths, especially since the Doctrine of the Trinity completely authorizes non-sectarian prayer.”

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, seeks an injunction to prevent the Speaker of the House from permitting sectarian prayer to be sponsored by and delivered at the Indiana House of Representatives.

By completing this form, I agree to receive occasional emails per the terms of the ACLU’s privacy policy.

The Latest in National Security

ACLU's Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Learn More About National Security

National Security issue image

The ACLU’s National Security Project is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.