Indiana joins push to allow public body prayers

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Indiana is one of 22 states hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will allow prayers that endorse a specific religion before public government meetings.

The Indiana attorney general's office last week signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to exempt public bodies from screening opening prayers for sectarian references.

The high court's justices said in May they would review a federal appeals court ruling that found upstate New York town of Greece, a Rochester suburb, had violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Greece should have made a greater effort to invite people from other faiths to open its monthly board meetings. Two residents who are not Christian complained that they felt marginalized by the steady stream of Christian prayers and challenged the practice.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that prayer that doesn't endorse a particular religion is acceptable at public meetings. But Indiana and 21 other states want the justices to hold that sectarian prayer is also constitutional.

"The Court should reject the assumption that the content of private citizens' prayers before legislative assemblies is attributable exclusively to the government," Indiana Attorney General said in an Aug. 2 statement. "Such prayers, rather, are expressions of private belief made in service to an elected body of citizens."

Indiana Civil Liberties Union of Indiana legal director Ken Falk told The Journal Gazette, "The Supreme Court has never ruled directly on the question when the prayers get more overt. How far can they go? That is the question in this case."

Members of both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly hold prayers before each session. Legislative leaders have said they invite faith leaders from diverse backgrounds to give the prayer, but most are led by Protestant clergy. House Speaker Brian Bosma was not available for comment Friday.

A federal judge ruled in 2005 that Indiana House prayers mentioning Jesus Christ or using terms such as savior amounted to state endorsement of a religion. But a federal appeals court threw out that decision on a technicality in 2007 without ruling on the prayer issue.

Many other public boards in Indiana observe a moment of silence rather than sectarian prayer.

The Fort Wayne City Council holds a moment of silent prayer, and council President Tom Didier said he always says "Amen" out loud at the end.

"This country was founded on freedom of religion, so for me, the founders would be rolling over in their graves the way we treat Christianity now," Didier told The Journal Gazette.

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