Republican Speaker of the House Brian Bosma has escalated the battle over Christian prayers in the Indiana Statehouse by filing an additional appeal to a federal court ruling from last fall that restricts the content of prayers given as part of the proceedings of the Indiana General Assembly.
In November, U.S. District Judge David Hamilton ruled that opening prayers in the House of Representatives could not endorse any one religion over any other. The original case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of four Christian plaintiffs who objected to what they consider the government-sponsored Christianity that occurs when pastors and legislators open House sessions with a prayer to Jesus Christ the Savior or the equivalent, excluding all other faiths.
Of the 45 prayers from the 2005 session for which transcripts are available, the overwhelming majority were no different from those heard on any given Sunday in any given Christian church, according to court documents. In April, after a prayer that included the statement, “I thank you Jesus for dying for me,” Bosma announced that the visiting minister was “going to bless [the House of Representatives] with a song.” The minister then proceeded to sing “Just A Little Talk with Jesus” and legislators and onlookers were prompted to stand, clap and sing along.
Just before Easter, the House of Representatives began its session with the prayer, “Those of us that are of the Christian faith, we thank you for the sacrifice that this weekend will represent. We thank you especially for what Sunday represents, resurrection and new life.” On a different occasion, the House prayer concluded, “Now Lord, we ask it in your Son’s name, Lord of Lord, King of Kings, and Jesus Christ, who gave us the most precious gift — to die on the cross for our sins.”
In his ruling, Judge Hamilton asked that the speaker of the House abide by certain parameters that would allow Indiana residents of all faiths to be represented. “If the speaker chooses to continue any form of legislative prayer,” Hamilton wrote 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.”
“The founders also knew centuries of history in which religious conflicts had caused war and oppression,” Hamilton explained. “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.”
Speaker Bosma disagrees. “For the first time in American history, a federal court has specifically prohibited state legislators and their invited guests from using the name of Jesus Christ in prayer,” he contends. “The Indiana House has always been, and should remain, the center of free speech in our state, and federal courts should not dictate the contents of that speech.”
Though the Indiana attorney general is bound by law to represent state offices and office holders in legal matters, and did represent the speaker of the House in the original case and first appeal, Bosma has now hired a private Washington, D.C.-based law firm as his defense team.
Winston & Strawn LLP is an international law firm with 875 attorneys among nine offices in Chicago, Geneva, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Paris, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Steffen Johnson, the partner listed as Bosma’s counsel in the suit, has served as a principal brief writer in more than 20 cases for parties and amici curiae before the U.S. Supreme Court. Johnson also served in the Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice, where he advised the senior executive branch on constitutional questions concerning the president’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative.
According to published reports, a contract has been drafted for Winston and Strawn but had not been signed, and the firm has not yet been paid. Bosma said his office will seek private funds to help pay for the legal battle, but he did not rule out using taxpayer money. He had no estimates on how much the litigation could cost. “We’re really exploring all options,” Bosma said. “But it’s a private lawsuit against a public official, so it is appropriate and within the law for public funds to be used for its defense.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has 30 days to file a brief in response to Bosma’s appeal, and arguments are expected to take place in September. Bosma hopes to have a decision before the November elections, though he has vowed to fight it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “This is an issue that has national implications,” he said when filing the appeal. “We’re still of the opinion that ultimately this decision will be made by the Untied States Supreme Court, whether we are successful at the 7th Circuit or not.”