Indiana Court Upholds Challenge to House’s Exclusionary Sectarian Prayers

Affiliate: ACLU of Indiana
November 30, 2005 12:00 am

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Citing Protection of Religious Minorities, Court Instructs Speaker to Offer Non-Denominational Prayers

INDIANAPOLIS — U.S. District Court Judge David F. Hamilton today ordered the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Indiana General Assembly to stop permitting sectarian prayers from being offered as part of the official House proceedings.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit over the practice in May on behalf of a retired Methodist minister, a lobbyist for a statewide Quaker group, and two Roman Catholic residents.

“Today’s decision reaffirms that the Indiana General Assembly belongs to all the people, and a legislative session is the last place where we want people to feel excluded because of their religious faith,” said ICLU Legal Director Kenneth J. Falk.

The court found that the substantial majority of the prayers offered were “explicitly Christian in content,” with 29 of the 45 House prayers transcribed from the 2005 legislative session offered in the name of Jesus.

“The Establishment Clause was intended in large part to protect religious minorities from religious majorities who might try to harness the power and prestige of the government to advance their sincere religious beliefs,” the judge wrote as part of a 60-page decision.

Judge Hamilton ruled that limiting Indiana House prayers to inclusive and non-sectarian expressions is consistent with the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Marsh v. Chambers, in which the court allowed non-sectarian prayers to begin Nebraska legislative sessions. The court allowed the Speaker of the House to continue to permit session-opening prayers if those offering the prayers were specifically instructed to limit themselves to non-sectarian prayers and to refrain from any denominational appeal.

The case was filed on the heels of an extraordinary April 5, 2005 session that began with an invocation that included the statement, “I thank you Jesus for dying for me.” The Speaker of the House then 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, at least one lobbyist attempted to leave the gallery area but was barred from doing so by a House employee, and several constituents registered protests to the Speaker and other House members.

The court’s order is a permanent injunction, and the Speaker has not yet announced whether he will appeal the decision or seek a stay pending the next session of the House, scheduled for January 4, 2006.

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