NOTIONS: The Wiccans and the Speaker: Two cases, one topic

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A few months ago, I had lunch with Fran Quigley, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. We’d never met, but we’d exchanged emails about one another’s newspaper columns.

As we ate, we did the getting-to-knowyou dance. We talked about our wives and kids, faith and friends, grief and recovery.

After that, work wormed its way into the conversation. We talked about our mutual interest in writing, law, government, politics and our often-frustrating quests to save the planet from injustice.

At one point, we were discussing divorce and its impact on children when Quigley told me about a case in the works at the ICLU.

An Indiana couple had sought a divorce. While they no longer wanted to be married to one another, they agreed on many aspects of their dissolution. In particular, they agreed their child should be raised in their Wiccan religion.

But Marion Superior Court Judge Cale Bradford, without being asked by either party, had ordered the parents to shelter their child from involvement in and observation of “non-mainstream religious rituals.”

Quigley said the ICLU was working with the father on an appeal.

I pulled out my checkbook and joined the ICLU.

Months later, The Indianapolis Star broke the Wiccan story with front-page, top-of-the-fold play.

The story triggered immediate outrage. Legal experts said the case likely would be reversed. Letters to the editor said government had no business promoting religion. The plaintiff even posted Web site messages asking supports not to hound Judge Bradford with complaints.

For a moment, folks seemed to understand the ICLU’s role of upholding civil rights against government officials trying to promote majority beliefs to individual citizens.

But alas, the moment was short-lived.

Because days later, the ICLU filed another suit attempting to uphold civil rights in the face of yet another government official trying to promote majority beliefs to individual citizens.

This time, the Speaker of Indiana’s House of Representatives was on the receiving end of a federal suit filed by ICLU. And this time, the religion involved wasn’t tiny Wicca, but big-time Christianity.

To be sure, the ICLU complaint recognizes that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld non-sectarian prayers at the beginning of legislative sessions, so long as they don’t “proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” It doesn’t argue with that.

But ICLU does charge that the vast majority of clergy invited to lead prayers in the Indiana House of Representatives have been Christians, and that many of their prayers have been “clearly sectarian” and “advanced Christianity.” In fact, the complaint quotes 26 House prayers during the 2005 session with some reference to Jesus.

It also cites one occasion when some House members found the prayer so offensive that they walked out, and another that

triggered a law professor’s letter to House Speaker Brian Bosma citing unconstitutionality. The professor never got a reply.

Oh, the hue and cry.

The Indianapolis Star’s

editorial page, which days earlier had said that a government official (Bradford) had “badly overstepped his

authority” by trying to promote mainstream religion in the Wicca case, blasted the ICLU for “being on the wrong side of religious freedom” for arguing that a government official (the Speaker) was trying to promote mainstream religion.

By mail, e-mail, calls and letters to the editor, the ICLU was lambasted and even threatened by the very folks whose Bible teaches the dangers of casting first stones. Some complaints came from the very individuals who’d supported the ICLU in the Wicca case.

In Los Angeles last week, a new play premiered to glowing reviews. Called “A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters,” it focuses on religious tolerance.

The play was written by the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s resident playwright, James Still, with input from Native Americans, Catholic immigrants, Jews, African-American Christians, Buddhists, atheists/nonbelievers, Bahais, Hindus, Muslims and the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community.

Darryl Miller’s Los Angeles Time review began this way:

“You might call it the parable of the 10 freeway.

“A holier-than-thou tone has begun to creep into a theological discussion between a Jewish poet and her assistant, who comes from a Christian Cambodian immigrant family. Attempting to put their differences into perspective, the poet turns to metaphor.

“‘You have all these Christians zipping along on the 10,’ she says, ‘and when they hear that all the Jews are driving on Olympic Boulevard, the Christians say, ‘Well, why didn’t you take the freeway?’

“She concludes by explaining: ‘Different roads can sometimes take you to the same place.’

“The line … was met with applause. In keeping with the play’s message, the response signaled that disparate people had experienced a moment of consensus.”

While it would be lovely if we could count on government officials to always see the wisdom of traveling disparate roads to consensus, we can’t.

As a result, the ICLU sometimes must remind us and our elected officials that individuals’ rights sometimes supersede what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.”

The Jesus of my youth believed that, too.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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