State legislators in Indiana are angrily vowing to challenge a federal court ruling striking down the practice of sectarian prayers before the state House of Representatives.
The ruckus began in November, when U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton concluded that Indiana lawmakers violated the Constitution by using “systematically sectarian” prayers to open meetings. The prayers were almost always Christian in nature, Hamilton noted, and he ordered members to use nonsectarian benedictions.
The Indiana House was not in session when the ruling came down, but as legislators prepared to return to work last month, some members flirted with defiance.
Terry Goodin, a Democratic House member, told The Washington Post he would “absolutely” use Christ’s name in opening prayers.
“Really, who do you pray to?” asked Goodin. “If you’re offering up a prayer, you’re praying to a deity. You don’t offer prayers to just an open space. I will give the same type of prayer that’s been given for 100 years. I won’t change my words because of someone in the judicial branch who tells me I must.”
Another House member, Democrat B. Patrick Bauer, remarked, “I see where religions were forbidden in other countries. In communist countries. In totalitarian countries. I think this smacks of that. We need a clarification or we need a correction.”
House Speaker Brian Bosma, however, seemed to have little interest in provoking a fight with the judge. Bosma said he would comply with Hamilton’s order while the case is on appeal, although he called the judge’s ruling “intolerable.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, has made it clear he will brook no dissent.
“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,” Hamilton wrote in a Dec. 28 order. He vowed to “take appropriate steps to insure compliance.”
The issue came to a head in April after Clarence Brown, an evangelical Christian who works in an auto parts factory, was invited to give a guest invocation to House members. As The Post reported, Brown said he talked with God while driving to the state capitol and decided to use his time to sermonize for Jesus.
“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.”
During his prayer, Brown thanked God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” When Brown finished praying, Bosma announced that Brown would “bless us with a song.” Brown then launched into what The Post described as “an energetic rendition of ‘Just a Little Talk With Jesus.’” Several people walked out.
Shortly thereafter, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the name of four Indiana residents: a Quaker, a Methodist and two Catholics.
Since the ruling, some members of the Indiana House have been meeting in the back of the chamber for prayer every morning. Many lawmakers have applauded the move as a good compromise, since the prayer meetings are voluntary.
On Jan. 9, the Indiana Senate opened its 2006 session with 20 seconds of silence. The Senate is not a defendant in the lawsuit against the House, but Senate President Pro Tempore Robert D. Garton told the Indianapolis Star he wanted to prevent any legal action against the Senate.
“I think it was a very sad day when an official issued an order that censored prayer,” Garton said. “I think he raised a new standard of intolerance.”