The scandal of particular prayers

we the peopleI can’t believe that I haven’t written about this yet, but here goes. Sunday’s Washington Post ran with an A3 story on the fight between members of the Indiana state House and a federal judge who ruled awhile ago that the daily prayers in the lower lawmaking chamber invoked the name of Jesus Christ too often and were illegal.

The story has generated a good number of headlines, columns, editorials, talk radio jabber and plenty of letters to the editor and pits the power of a federal court against that of a state lawmaking body. And it doesn’t look like the judge appreciates Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma’s attitude towards the original decision which was recently upheld by the same judge on an appeal for the decision’s vagueness:

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton rejected arguments by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, that Hamilton’s ruling was too vague to enforce.

And Hamilton issued a warning:

“If the speaker or those offering prayers seek to evade the injunction through indirect but well understood expressions of specifically Christian beliefs, the audience, the public, and the court will be able to see what is happening. In that unlikely event, the court will be able to take appropriate measures to enforce” the injunction.

Hamilton earlier this month found that the House practice of offering a prayer at the start of each day’s session breached the clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars the government establishment of religion. The House prayers, he ruled, were overwhelmingly Christian in content and amounted to the advancement of one religion over others. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.

I am dying to know what Judge Hamilton thinks he can do to Bosma or any other member of the Indiana House who use Jesus’s name in a prayer. According to the Post‘s story, the original lawsuit from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union was a reaction against an incident that some members saw as a bit over the top:

It was Clarence Brown’s energetic rendition of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” that prompted several legislators to decide enough was enough. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union soon filed suit in the name of four people — a Quaker, a Methodist and two Catholics — to stop what critics considered an increasingly sectarian prayer practice.

Brown, 51, is an evangelical Christian layman who works in an auto parts factory 70 miles south of Indianapolis. Invited to give a prayer to open the April 5 House session, Brown said he was thinking about the separation of church and state as he drove to the state Capitol.

He said he talked with God during the ride and decided to speak up for the man he considers his savior. “I wanted to share the word. That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Brown said. “I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness.”

Brown’s prayer included thanks to God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” When the prayer was finished, Bosma announced that Brown would “bless us with a song.”

As Brown led the rollicking tune, some members and staffers clapped and sang along.

Several others left the chamber.

I say, welcome to Indiana, folks. We can be a bit strange I guess and a bit religious. I’m sure this event weirded out the reporters who have covered this story, but so far, most of the coverage seems to be fairly evenhanded.

The crux of this story is buried somewhere in the legal debate between the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. I won’t go into it here, but I’m told that the Everson v. Board of Education decision by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black provides a lengthy historical foundation for the creation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

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  • Joseph Chojnacki

    Delurking — I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve read on this site. Not a post goes by that doesn’t give me something to think about, whether I agree with the author or not.

    First, a nitpick in re: “. . . the legal debate between the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment.” I’m sure you meant “between the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment”.

    However, I found little in the link about the Everson decision to support Bosma’s case. Everson pertains to provision of public services for education, including parochial schools. Surely legislation is not a “public service” in the same sense as mass transit or the fire department, or even the police. Singing a Gospel hymn on the floor of a state legislature seems qualitatively different to me than, say, singing it on a city bus, even while riding that bus to a religious grammar school.

    Do not mistake me; I am not in principle opposed to prayers by public officials in the course of their duties, and I think AUSCS and the ACLU have long since crossed the line between freedom *of* religion and freedom *from* religion. I just don’t see what relevance the Everson case has here.

    But I am put in mind of Edmund Burke’s famous quote about how the duty legislators owe to their constituency includes exercise of their personal judgment and conscience. If there is any judicial precedent espousing such a principle as it pertains to religious faith, it would seem appropriate to this discussion.

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a former city councillor (and my father and granmother were both in elective politics) we have across our lifespans experienced personally (and in trying to represent the voters who elected us) the growing power, arrogance, and elitism (lawyers need only apply)of the courts. My father once told me the one thing the courts can’t tamper with is a legislative body’s control of the purse strings–that is how parliament built up democracy at the expense of the king. I soon found this historic axiom has been thrown in the trash by the dictatorial courts. Our city’s legislative body (of which I was a member) was ordered to spend money the majority of us considered totally inappropriate–but being threatened with jail by Hitlerian courts can change cowardly minds unfortunately.
    Accomplices in this slow, gradual destruction of democracy are the civic groups who run to court instead of organizing politically for the next election–or creating public pressure to immediately change. Is it any wonder voter turnout shrinks year by year–why bother???
    I quit the charade of politics and now spend my free time as a Catholic deacon instead of lieing to people about how powerful their vote supposedly is on issues that really matter.
    I hope the state legislature tells the judge what President Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory) once told the Supreme Court: They’ve made their decision –now let’s see them enforce it.

  • Will

    Is the judge saying that “To whom it may concern prayers” are permitted? If so, how does he justify disregarding the feelings of atheists and polytheists, while being solicitous for non-Christian monotheists?

  • Doug

    Judge Hamilton was following the precedent laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under normal rules, even non-sectarian prayer conducted by the Government would violate the Establishment Clause. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that legislatures have some latitude under the First Amendment to conduct prayer. However, if a legislature insists on conducting prayer as official government business, such prayer must be non-sectarian in nature.

    The crux of the matter is that access to the forum (in this case, the Speaker’s podium) is strictly controlled by the government. Therefore, the speech given from the speaker’s podium is government speech. The Constitution limits government; in this case, government speech. If it were private speech, there would be Free Expression issues. But, because it is not private speech and is, instead, government speech, it implicates only the Establishment Clause.

    The original order is in PDF form here:

    Some excerpts and some of my analysis is here:

  • Will

    So, again, what makes a prayer “non-sectarian”? And how is this to be assured without “entangling” judges in micromanaging the chaplaincy?

    PRINCESS NAVINA IN MANDAAT satirizes this with a “worship service” with the lectionary approved by the official Bureau of Sermons: “God…….God….. God…. …God….”
    …because anything more specific would EXCLUDE someone, and possibly even OFFEND.

  • Daniel

    It’s interesting that the Imam and Rabbi were able to figure out how to give a non-sectarian prayer, but that the Evangelical Christians cannot.

    Life is a minority religion probably gives some perspective you can’t get when you are in a dominating, majority religion but still believe your views are being suppressed. You want to learn about religious suppression, talk to an Imam or Rabbi,

  • Will

    I feel like I did a few months ago, trying to get people to give a coherent account of what they meant by “suspicious-looking”, or worse, “Muslim looking.”

    Does someone get to say “I said ‘God’, but I didn’t say ‘Jesus’, so that makes in nonsectarian.”

    Does Daniel’s rabbi get to say “I didn’t use any Hebrew, so that makes it nonsectarian.”

    When such remarks are hypothetically addressed to representatives of the Council for Secular Humanism, or some of my neo-pagan “friends”, will they say “Yep, that’s right, fine with us.”

    Or say “Don’t shove that theistic/monotheist on us!”

    Or, as I have a sneaking suspicion, would they say “Fine as long as it isn’t one of those no-good CHRISTIANS doing it!”

    And will anyone attempt to answer any of these instead of resorting to the “YouJustDontGetIt” incantation, or judges saying “I can’t define sectarianism, but I know it when I hear it”, which this one seems to be doing.

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  • Will

    This podcast includes (if you can stand to get that far) the invocation given by a witch in the Oregon State Senate.
    Would Judge Hamilton, if he were sitting in Oregon, come down with “It’s not nonsectarian enough, and quit waving that sectarian athame around!”? Or would he say it’s OK because the invocation of “the great Goddess and God” isn’t Chri…. er, doesn’t use proper names?
    (And please spare us “You KNOW the answers, and you’re obviously just PRETENDING not to Get It just to be obnoxious!” I got much more than enough of that from the Movement ideologues in college.)