News Articles

Ind. House Speaker refuses to defy judge’s prayer ruling

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–Rejecting requests to defy a judge’s order banning the use of Christ’s name in legislative prayers, Indiana’s speaker of the house said Jan. 4 that instead of opening the 2006 session with a “government-approved” prayer, the house of representatives would have no formal prayer at all.

Addressing legislators on the first day of the new session, Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma said that while the judge’s ruling is being appealed, members would have “informal” and “uncensored” prayers on the floor of the House before each legislative day begins — but not a formal prayer from the podium.

Those prayers on the floor, he said, can invoke Christ’s name without defying the court order. In fact, before Bosma even spoke, members prayed together at the back of the House. Democrat Peggy Welch used “Holy Spirit” in her prayer, while Republican Eric Turner invoked the name of Christ.

But the 189-year-old tradition of having a formal prayer at the beginning of each session will take a hiatus — at least for now, Bosma said. It was the first time that the House had met since the Nov. 30 ruling.

“We will continue to fight this order by every constitutional means available until it is overturned,” Bosma said, adding that the ruling is being appealed to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Although Bosma is Republican, the issue has brought together members of both parties. When he was done speaking, he received a standing ovation.

The controversy began Nov. 30 when U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton ruled that legislative prayers could not invoke “Christ’s name or title or any other denominational appeal.” The prayers, Hamilton said in his 60-page decision, must be “non-sectarian.” Hamilton was nominated by President Clinton.

“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.”

On Dec. 28 Hamilton refused to prevent the ruling from going into effect. State attorneys had filed a brief with Hamilton, asking him to reconsider.

The lawsuit was brought against Bosma by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, the Indiana affiliate of the ACLU.

Bosma said he decided the ruling must be obeyed, even if he didn’t like it. Some had called on Bosma to disobey it.

“After talking about this with my own children, I determined that the message this sent was completely inappropriate,” Bosma said. “We are a nation of laws — even laws we disagree with. What message would a defiance send to an abusive husband who disagrees with the restraining order to stay away from his estranged wife and children?”

In recent days, Bosma said, his staff asked four Christian ministers who had previously prayed to come and pray again. All four refused, saying they could not in good conscience do so, Bosma said. He asserted that the ruling would force him to inquire “about the individual’s theology” and “their beliefs regarding prayer” and force him to make a “theological determination.”

“Numerous Supreme Court decisions hold that public officials like myself cannot make such religious judgments in our public work,” he said.

Christian ministers, Jewish rabbis and Islamic imams all have opened the legislature in prayer, Bosma said.

“Some mentioned Jesus Christ, some chose not to. Some mentioned faiths other than Christianity, some did not. Others made reference only to God and others chose not to mention Him in any way…. The point is that we did not all agree, perhaps, on the theology of those prayers. But we all agreed and respected the individual’s right to pray openly, freely without coercion or without censorship,” Bosma said.

Hamilton’s ruling, he said, was “intolerable and inconsistent with religious liberty and free speech.”

“[F]or the first time in two centuries, the speaker of the house has been placed in the position of seeing to it that only government-approved theology will be offered on the house floor,” Bosma said. “Requiring people to pray in accordance with a government-approved theology directly interferes with the freedom of conscience and speech that each of us holds so dearly.

“… I pledge to continue to fight with each of you, and [I] know that I speak for most of you, that by God’s grace, we will not faint from this task.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust