Judge rules for inclusiveness

Laura McPhee

In his recent ruling against exclusively Christian prayer in the Indiana Statehouse, federal Judge David Hamilton saw Christian prayer as violating the separation of church and state made clear in the U.S. Constitution.

"The Founders also knew centuries of history in which religious conflicts had caused war and oppression," he wrote. "They recognized that even the best intentions of people of faith can lead to division, exclusion, and worse. And they recognized that a majority who sees its faith as true and benign can be tempted in a democratic republic to try to use the power and prestige of government to advance that faith in ways that would actually divide and exclude."

The decision in the case brought by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a variety of plaintiffs, all Christians, requires that Speaker of the House Brian Bosma cease permitting sectarian prayer as part of the official House proceedings starting in January.

"If the Speaker chooses to continue any form of legislative prayer," Hamilton writes in his 60 page ruling, "he shall advise persons offering such a prayer (a) that it must be non-sectarian and must not be used to proselytize or advance any one faith or belief or to disparage any faith or belief, and (b) that they should refrain from using Christ's name or title or any other denomination appeal."

For his part, Bosma released a statement that, while not exactly misquoting the judge's ruling, does exaggerate its consequences.

"I am shocked and dismayed by the court's decision," Bosma said. "I find the court's unprecedented decision disturbing in that it directs me, as speaker, to advise people that they are prohibited from using 'Christ's name or title or any other denomination appeal.' The ruling forbids invited ministers and members to continue to exercise their right to free speech and pray in the tradition of their faith."

Actually, the ruling does not limit anyone's right to free speech or prayer and does not prohibit the House from opening its session with prayers. It does require that any official prayers be inclusive and non-sectarian, and not advance one particular religion.

In essence, Hamilton has required that the speaker of the House require anyone offering a prayer to follow the guidelines for prayer already established. Those invited to give the prayer are sent a letter that states in part: "The invocation is to be a short prayer asking for guidance and help in the matters that come before the members. We ask that you strive for an ecumenical prayer as our members, staff and constituents come from different faith backgrounds."

While everyone who gave a prayer at the Statehouse this past year was reportedly given these instructions, few seem to have abided by the written request, and no cleric or representative has ever been admonished, corrected or advised in any way about the religious content of the prayer that he or she delivered. According to court documents, the substantial majority of the prayers offered were explicitly Christian in content.

"After reviewing all available transcripts," Hamilton wrote, "the court finds that the actual practice amounts on the whole to a clear endorsement of Christianity, sending the message to others that they are outsiders and the message to Christians that they are favored insiders. No other specific religious faith was endorsed or invoked."

Bosma disagrees. "The prayers that have been offered in the Indiana House of Representatives have represented many faiths of both our members and our citizens. The prayers that have been offered have not attempted to proselytize, advance or disparage any faith or belief."