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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Ind. Courts - "Religion, prayer and government"

From a story in the April 16, 2010 issue of USA Today headed "Judge rules National Day of Prayer unconstitutional":

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional Thursday, saying the day amounts to a call for religious action.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote that the government can no more enact laws supporting a day of prayer than it can encourage citizens to fast during Ramadan, attend a synagogue or practice magic.

"In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual's decision whether and when to pray," Crabb wrote.

Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray. * * *

Crabb wrote that her ruling was not a judgment on the value of prayer. She noted government involvement in prayer may be constitutional if the conduct serves a "significant secular purpose" and doesn't amount to a call for religious action. But the National Day of Prayer crosses that line, she wrote.

"It goes beyond mere 'acknowledgment' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context," she wrote. "In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."

Last week Judge Sarah Evans Barker (SD Ind.) enjoined the Greenwood High School from permitting student-led prayer at its May 28 graduation ceremony - details in this May 1, 2010 ILB entry.

Another notable prayer case within the 7th Circuit was then-district judge David Hamilton's rulng in Hinrichs v. Speaker House Rep. (for background start here).

All is by way of introduction to this excellent editorial today in the LA Times. Some quotes from the lengthy piece:

Into this welter of confusion arrives the Lancaster City Council, which invites clergy from throughout the city to start its meetings with a prayer. Almost always, these are Christian clergy. The American Civil Liberties Union fired off a warning letter to the city, saying there had been complaints about the number of these prayers that are given "in the name of Jesus Christ" or with other clear references to specific religions. The city countered with a ballot measure, which voters passed last month, supporting a continuation of the current practice.

But voters' preferences cannot overrule constitutional protections or legal precedent in such matters. If a government body is promoting the establishment of religion, that's a violation of the 1st Amendment. The problem is that the courts have not always been clear; often, the particular circumstances of a case play a role in the decision. In 1983, for instance, the Supreme Court held that starting a legislative session with prayer does not violate the Constitution; it pointed to this country's long history of beginning government meetings with prayer, though it also noted that the prayer involved was ecumenical in nature and did not advance one religion over another. Such traditional prayer in civic settings has become a part of the culture, the justices wrote. This concept has come to be known as "ceremonial deism." But the exception applies only to legislative bodies, including city councils; it does not allow even nondenominational prayer as a formal part of a public school day, though in many schools students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, including its "one nation, under God" clause.

A 2000 Superior Court decision narrowed in on situations like the one in Lancaster. Ruling on prayers before Burbank City Council meetings that used the phrase "in the name of Jesus Christ," the court said that invoking a deity specific to one religion implies an endorsement of that religion by the city government. Ecumenical prayers are thus considered kosher; denominational prayers are not.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 2, 2010 04:50 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions