Prayer in the Indiana Statehouse

IndianaCapitol 01There’s been a surprisingly low level of news coverage on a trial judge’s ruling that “sectarian prayers” on the floor of Indiana’s House (the lower level of its General Assembly) violated the “constitutional separation of church and state.” Most recently, an appeals court tossed the case on procedural grounds, but didn’t look at the merits of the case because the plaintiffs didn’t have standing.

As the local Indianapolis blog Advance Indiana noted when the news first broke, many news organizations interpreted this to mean that there was a prayer ban in the first place. The original court ruling just barred sectarian prayers, whatever that means. Indiana’s nearly two-century tradition of opening General Assembly sessions with guest prayers didn’t go anywhere. The prayers were just limited in what they could say to the Almighty.

As later stories noted, this just means that the speech limits are gone for now, but this legal battle is far from over:

In its 2-1 opinion, the court ruled there were no expenditures directly tied to the prayers. Therefore, as taxpayers, the plaintiffs had no standing to sue.

But that doesn’t mean the legislature should resume its practice of sectarian prayers, said Ken Falk, an attorney for the ACLU of Indiana.

“The one bit of caution is that the 7th Circuit did not approve the prayer practices, and I would hope that the result of this is that the state does not go back to this practice of sectarian prayer,” Falk said. “If that would occur, there could be people who could bring litigation.”

An angle that most reporters have focused on is how the legal battle, which was originally started by a Republican leader of the House, continued when the Democrats took over the House in the 2006 elections. Part of it deals with how legislatures don’t like to be told what they can do in their part of the State House. The other part is that Democrats are pretty sensitive to the fact that many people in this state listen to their pastors before they listen to ACLU directors. Throughout this story you see references to religious freedom, free speech and their universal importance to people of all faiths.

A major aspect missing from the stories is any direct quotation from the kind of prayers that were offered. I wish I could get myself a more complete list, but Advance Indiana says that one of them was a “sing-along to a song entitled ‘Let’s Take a Walk With Jesus.’” Needless to say, non-Christian members of the House didn’t feel very comfortable with that, and this lawsuit came about as a result. That lack of context leaves readers thinking that all that was banned was the mention of Jesus at the end of the prayer.

In a rather unexpected development to non-Hoosiers, the South Bend Tribune has a story headlined with a quote by the Democratic House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, saying that the “Christian majority justifies House prayer.” Last time I checked, you’re not supposed to start your stories with a question for the reader, but that is what Jeff Parrott does in leading off his story on the subject:

Does might make right?

It does when it comes to the issue of Statehouse prayer, House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said Wednesday. …

“The majority of people in this state are Christian,” Bauer said, pausing a few seconds before continuing, “but if you exclude a minority, then you have a problem.”

Bauer derided as “censorship” a November 2005 injunction, ordered by U.S. District Judge David Hamilton, against the House’s long-held tradition of preceding business with prayers that contain words such as Jesus Christ and savior.

“Censoring one particular religion is almost reverse discrimination,” Bauer said. “We’ve had the Jewish faith and even a Muslim over the years.”

In some ways the headline writers for this story cherry-picked the “majority of people” quote, but nevertheless, he said it, and if you think about it, the statement doesn’t really make much sense. Would it have been helpful to note that the civil rights aren’t there to protect the rights of the majority, but to protect the rights of the minority, however small? Maybe, but that comes close to crossing the line of a reporter injecting his views into the story.

The next development in this story is what kind of prayer will be offered in House in the next session of the General Assembly. That will make for an interesting decision by whoever is asked to make that prayer. Whatever way you cut it, prayer has become a political football in Indiana, and the Democrats are loathe to lose the conservative Democratic voters, many of them in the southern portions of the state, to Republican candidates. The ACLU has maintained that it will file suit the next time a regular participant expresses discomfort with the prayers.

The story is now in the hands of those who are called to pray.

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  • Jerry

    The next development in this story is what kind of prayer will be offered in House in the next session of the General Assembly.

    Maybe people are going at this question wrong. Rather than trying to satisfy everyone which is impossible, how about trying to offend everyone by scheduling a set of prayers that at least one person objects to including having an atheist denounce prayer. After all, if we can’t make everyone happy, we can at least make everyone miserable.

  • Joseph M. Smith

    When will we finally recognize that prayer belongs in the faith community and in the individual heart? Generic prayers to a generic god satisfy no one, and are not even properly called prayers. They are ceremonial nods to God and may even be offensive to Him if not to us.

  • Jeff Parrott

    I’m not typically a fan of question ledes, myself, because they seem lazy, but I think they work in select circumstances, such as this one. At a press conference, I asked Bauer for his thoughts on U.S. 7th Circuit appeals court Judge Diane Wood’s opinion that Christian ministers’ overwhelming majority in the House’s Minister of the Day program (41 of 53 ministers in 2005) was unconstitutional. Bauer replied that most Indiana residents are Christians … but we must not exclude minorities. We believed his statement could be paraphrased to read as, “might makes right.” But since he didn’t actually speak the words, “might makes right,” we softened it a bit by framing his statement in the form of a question.

  • Doug

    The District Court judge’s opinion actually contained quite a bit of description about the exact nature of the prayers. My initial summary of the court’s opinion is here.

    Transcripts are available for forty-five prayers. Of these, twentynine were offered in the name of Jesus, Jesus Christ, the Savior, and/or the Son. . . . The substantial majority of prayers offered during the 2005 session were explicitly Christian in content. Several examples illustrate the point. The prayer of January 4th concluded: “In the Strong name of Jesus our Savior, Amen.” . . . The January 19th prayer concluded: “We ask You to bless these leaders in the name of Jesus, Your Son, and our Lord who reigns forever and ever. Amen.” . . . “We look forward to the day when all nations and all people of the earth will have the opportunity to hear and respond to messages of love of the Almighty God who has revealed Himself in the saving power of Jesus Christ.” . . .

    After the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance, Speaker Bosma reintroduced Reverend Brown, saying: “I understand he has a wonderful voice and he is going to bless us with a song.” Reverend Brown proceeded to sing “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” A number of the legislators, staff, and visitors present in the chamber stood, clapped, and sang along at the invitation of Reverend Brown. This event prompted at least some members of the House to walk out because they believed the sectarian religious display during the legislative session was inappropriate.” . . . In addition to the many explicitly Christian prayers, the prayer for February 21st was generally inclusive but contained a feature especially offensive to Jews.

    The prayer used the Hebrew name for God, known as the Tetragrammaton, which Jews do not mention aloud.

    What I don’t really understand is the usefulness of prayer as official business of the government. If it’s specific enough to be meaningful to some, it will almost certainly be offensive to many. If it’s bland enough to offend few or none, it probably won’t be worth the time. To me, it seems that a certain strain of vocal and politically influential Christians are simply trying to mark their territory.