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Federal judge bans ‘Jesus’ from Ind. legislative prayers

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–Ministers who open Indiana legislative sessions with prayer must refrain from praying “in the name of Jesus” and from using Christ’s name, a federal judge ruled Nov. 30.

In his 60-page decision U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton cited Supreme Court precedent in ordering Speaker of the House Brian Bosma to keep future ministers from using “Christ’s name or title or any other denominational appeal.” The prayers, Hamilton wrote, must be “non-sectarian.”

A nominee of President Clinton, Hamilton sits on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

“All [ministers] are free to pray as they wish in their own houses of worship or in other settings,” Hamilton wrote. “The individuals do not have a First Amendment right, however, to use an official platform like the Speaker’s podium at the opening of a House session to express their own religious faiths.”

The lawsuit was brought against Bosma by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union — the Indiana affiliate of the ACLU — on behalf of four Indiana citizens. One is a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), another is a retired United Methodist minister and two are Roman Catholic.

The ICLU did not ask that the prayers be discontinued altogether — only that the prayers not be sectarian and include Christ’s name.

Curt Smith, president of the conservative Indiana Family Institute, said he is encouraging Bosma to appeal the decision to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Clearly, [Hamilton] has issued an opinion which flies in the face of the First Amendment, as well as the Indiana State Constitution,” Smith told Baptist Press. “His ruling engages in what the lawyers call viewpoint discrimination, in that he is banning prayers in the name of Christ. That is discrimination against Christian prayer alone.”

Bosma, a Republican, said he was “shocked” and “dismayed” by the ruling.

“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 denominational appeal’ when offering the invocation in the Indiana House of Representatives,” he said in a statement. “It is intolerable that a court in this free society would ask a person to censor the prayer they offer in the tradition of their faith. The prayers that have been offered in the Indiana House of Representatives have represented many faiths of both our members and our citizens.”

Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer, a Democrat, also criticized the decision and said he would support Bosma if he decides to appeal, The Indianapolis Star reported. Bauer called the decision “untenable.”

According to Hamilton, the 2005 legislative session included 53 prayers. Forty-one were delivered by Christian clergy, nine by representatives and one each by a Muslim, a Jew and a layperson.

At least 29 of the prayers, Hamilton said, were offered in Christ’s name in various formats. One pastor, Hamilton said, read from Colossians 3:15-17, which reads, in part, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.” Another pastor, Hamilton said, was allowed by Bosma to sing “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” as “legislators, staff and visitors present in the chamber stood, clapped and sang along.” Some representatives, Hamilton said, walked out during the song.

“After reviewing all available transcripts of prayers from the House sessions in 2005, 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.”

Some ministers, Hamilton said, have stated they won’t participate in future prayers if they aren’t allowed to pray freely in Christ’s name.

Hamilton cited the Supreme Court’s 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision, which let stand Nebraska’s practice of allowing a chaplain to open sessions with prayer. But Hamilton pointed to a footnote in the Marsh decision which states, “The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where, as here, there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other faith or belief.”

Hamilton ruled the Indiana prayers proselytized and advanced the Christian faith or disparaged other faiths.

“The prayer opportunities have frequently and consistently been used to advance the Christian religion,” Hamilton wrote.

But Bosma said the legislative prayers neither proselytize, advance or disparage “any faith or belief.”

“In my years of service in the Indiana General Assembly, I have always appreciated the diversity and sincerity with which the invited clerics and members have led us in the invocation,” Bosma said. “The ruling … forbids invited ministers and members to continue to exercise their right to free speech and pray in the tradition of their faith.”

Said Smith: “I think [Hamilton] absolutely misunderstands the prayers that were offered, and I find it quite ironic, because he is the son of a United Methodist minister. Someone who prays fervently and passionately to their Lord Jesus Christ believes He’s God and acts accordingly, and that speech is among the most protected rights we have as Americans.

The case is Hinrichs v. Bosma

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  • Michael Foust