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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