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Federal judge: Ind. legislative prayers can't favor 1 religion

By The Associated Press

Editor's note: The Associated Press reported that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on March 1, 2006, refused to temporarily lift a ban on prayers in the Indiana House of Representatives that mention Jesus Christ or endorse any particular religion. The panel voted 2-1 to deny a request by House Speaker Brian Bosma to set aside a judge's order until an appeal could be further litigated. House members have been complying with the judge's order by meeting for informal prayers in the back of their chamber before official business begins.

INDIANAPOLIS — Prayers that typically open sessions of the Indiana House of Representatives can no longer mention Jesus Christ or advance a religious faith, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton issued a permanent injunction on Nov. 30 barring House Speaker Brian Bosma from permitting sectarian prayer as part of the official business of the House.

Bosma, R-Indianapolis, can continue the legislative prayers, but must advise those giving the invocations not to advance one faith and not to use Christ's name or title, Hamilton wrote in Hinrichs v. Bosma.

Hamilton's ruling said people do not have a First Amendment right to use an official platform like the speaker's podium to express their own religious faiths.

"All are free to pray as they wish in their own houses of worship or in other settings," Hamilton wrote. "Those who wish to participate in a practice of official prayer must be willing to stay within constitutional bounds."

Bosma called the ruling an "intolerable decision" that threatened free speech in the House. He said he has directed his legal team and requested the attorney general's office to begin investigating every possibility available to overturn the decision.

"We each as Hoosiers, as citizens of the United States, need to be able to express ourselves in accordance with our faith, as our conscience and our heart dictates, and when that liberty is taken away, a little bit of our freedom is taken away," Bosma said.

House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, a South Bend Democrat who preceded Bosma as speaker, said he and previous speakers had followed the same practice regarding prayer.

"This is not a partisan situation. It's simply once again legislation by the judiciary — judicial fiat," Bauer said.

Bosma said the ruling is more extreme than others.

"If it stands, this will be the farthest reaching decision to my knowledge of any federal court specifically focusing on the name Christ and removing that from public discourse," Bosma said. "I question how soon it will be when my ability to stand here and say the name just in discussion on the floor of the House will be taken away as well."

Bosma declined to say what he would do regarding a House prayer if the ruling was not overturned or stayed when the House convenes on Jan. 4.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in June on behalf of four people, including a Quaker lobbyist, who said they found the tradition of offering the usually Christian prayers offensive.

Hamilton wrote that the prayers overstepped constitutional boundaries.

"The practice of the Indiana House shown by the evidence here amounts in practical terms to an official endorsement of the Christian religion," he wrote.

The prayers send the message to Christians that they are favored insiders, and send a message to others that they are outsiders, the judge wrote.

Ken Falk, the ICLU's legal director, said the state should never make someone feel like they are of lesser value because of their religion.

"The prayers send a very powerful message of exclusion to those who are not of that denomination," Falk said.

Of 53 opening prayers in the House during the 2005 General Assembly session, 41 were given by clergy identified with Christian churches and nine were delivered by representatives. A lay person, a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi each delivered one prayer, according to court documents. At least 29 House invocations mentioned Jesus Christ, the Savior or the Son, the documents said.

During one prayer in April, elder Clarence Brown of Second Baptist Church in Bedford sang a gospel song called "Just A Little Talk With Jesus," prompting some lawmakers to leave the chamber and several people to lodge complaints with the ICLU.

Brown said he disagreed with Hamilton's ruling.

"If it is not in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died on the cross, your prayers will not get answered," Brown said.

Dozens of other religious leaders have signed a statement saying House prayers should honor religious diversity. That statement has been sent to both Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton, R-Columbus, with an invitation to discuss an alternative policy on prayer.

Both leaders' offices acknowledged receiving the statement but have not yet chosen to meet, said the Rev. Kevin Armstrong, senior pastor at North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, an organizer of the campaign.

Indianapolis Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso said she agreed with Hamilton's ruling.

"The state is not to give the impression of endorsing one particular religious tradition but rather to celebrate the rich plurality of faiths that make up the state of Indiana," she said. "No citizen should be made to feel marginalized."

Marcia Goldstone, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Indianapolis, said ruling does not ban prayer, but rather exclusive prayers.

She said prayers offered in the halls of government must be sensitive to the diverse religious lives of all Indiana citizens.

"The language should be hospitable and inclusive," Goldstone said.

7th Circuit tosses challenge to Ind. legislative prayers
Three-judge panel rules taxpayers who filed lawsuit lack legal standing, but ACLU says there are still options to keep case alive or begin new one. 10.31.07


Groups urge S.C. councils not to invoke Jesus in opening prayers

But state attorney general says he won't tell local governments what to do despite Supreme Court's refusal to hear appeal from town that defended sectarian prayers. 10.05.05

Court: Prayers at government meetings can be directed to Jesus
But federal judge takes issue with how Georgia county commissioners choose clergy, saying it is clear 'certain faiths were categorically excluded from the list.' 09.12.06

Ohio lawmaker to allow sectarian prayer before House sessions
Speaker Jon Husted is asking that prayers not mention specific legislation or advocate certain positions. 10.10.07

Legislative prayer

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