A civil-liberties group has sued the speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, claiming the use of the name of Jesus in prayers to open the body’s daily sessions is unconstitutional.
The federal lawsuit by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union says including such phrases as “In the strong name of Jesus our savior,” “We pray this in Christ’s name,” and “I appeal to our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ” exclude people who aren’t Christians.
The legal action targets House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican and a Christian.
“The suit does not seek to prevent opening the House session with prayers,” ICLU Legal Director Ken Falk said in a statement, but asks that such prayers show “respect for the beliefs of all Indiana residents and the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom for all.”
The House invites clergy from around the state to open sessions in prayer. Those offering prayers have included a Muslim imam and Jewish rabbi. When a member of the clergy is not available, a House member will pray instead.
Christians have criticized the ICLU, saying it is attempting to restrict free-speech rights.
“This is a further outrage from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union as it continues an unrelenting attack on people of faith in the public square,” Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, told the Indianapolis Star. “I am confident that every court in the land will reject this crass ploy.”
According to the ICLU, on April 5, when the Rev. Clarence Brown of Second Baptist Church of Bedford, Ind., encouraged lawmakers to stand and clap as he sang “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” several lawmakers walked out in protest.
Bosma was resolute in his prayer policy.
“The day the Indiana Civil Liberties Union dictates free speech on the floor of the Indiana House is the day that democracy begins to decline,” Bosma told the Star.
“This is an important right that we need to preserve.”
The speaker said the tradition of opening the House sessions with prayer dates back to 1826.
The Rev. Henry Gerner, one of four plaintiffs identified in the lawsuit, said the prayers are offensive to Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and anyone who does not share the Christian faith.
“I have no problem in a general kind of gathering with persons reflecting on their own beliefs,” Gerner is quoted as saying. “For it to be trumpeted from the podium in the chambers of the House, I think it makes it abhorrent.”
Anthony Hinrichs, another plaintiff, told the Indianapolis paper: “Our legislators, regardless of their good intentions, have created a culture of religious bigotry. Our lawmakers are asked to rise, clapping and swaying to Gospel songs as if it were an old-time tent revival. Such behavior can only codify a particular religious belief and create a policy of exclusion. It has no place in our Legislature.”
Luke Messer is the executive director of the Indiana Republican Party.
“The Indiana Civil Liberties Union should be embarrassed for filing its preposterous lawsuit against Speaker of the House Brian Bosma,” Messer said in a statement. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with allowing local religious leaders to recite a prayer at the opening of daily legislative sessions in the House Chambers. I applaud the speaker for encouraging free speech and the principles upon which our nation was founded. We stand around the American flag as a state and nation reciting the words ‘one nation under God’ and our currency has a daily reminder with ‘In God We Trust.'”
Messer says he believes most Hoosiers would stand behind Bosma and his prayer practices.
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