INDIANAPOLIS — The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declined this week to reconsider a ruling that threw out a lawsuit challenging the practice of sectarian prayers in the Indiana House.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana had asked the full court to rehear the case after a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in October in Hinrichs v. Bosma that taxpayers who sued over the prayers did not have the legal standing to do so.
House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the Jan. 15 ruling meant the House could resume its normal practice, which in the past has sometimes included mention of Jesus Christ.
But ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk said that wasn’t true because the ruling was based on the litigants’ standing, not on the merits of the case.
“I would hope that the House doesn’t somehow think that this is a validation of the prayer practices,” Falk said.
Falk said the ACLU likely would file a new lawsuit, with plaintiffs who come into contact with the prayers and who therefore might have legal standing, if the former practices resume.
The October ruling overturned a federal judge’s 2005 decision that banned the practice of opening the chamber’s business with sectarian prayers. U.S. District Judge David Hamilton had ruled that prayers mentioning Jesus Christ or using terms such as “savior” amounted to state endorsement of a religion.
Prayer in the Indiana House was a tradition for nearly 190 years when the ACLU challenged the practice on behalf of four taxpayers who believed the prayers — usually Christian — were offensive and violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
Attorney General Steve Carter, whose office defended the practice in court, praised the 7th Circuit decision in a statement Jan. 15.
“This brings us one step closer to ending the legal challenges the Speaker has faced in the past two years over this issue,” Carter said in the statement.
“Legislative prayer is a worthy act that I think the State should protect within relevant legal precedents.”
Falk said the ACLU still has a 90-day window in which it can decide whether to appeal to the U.S Supreme Court. That decision has yet to be made, he said.