Dodge County Board Suspends Prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has renewed its request that the Wisconsin State Assembly stop opening sessions with prayer. Last June, the Foundation wrote Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch that the practice of hosting almost exclusively Christian prayer is illegal. The Foundation pointed out that one representative went so far as to “exorcize the Assembly Chambers.”

With Rep. Mike Sheridan replacing Rep. Huebsch in the recent election, the Foundation is now directing its request to him. On behalf of FFRF and its 1,177 Wisconsin members, the Foundation wrote Sheridan that it “respectfully requests that the Assembly leadership take immediate steps to end this clear violation of the First Amendment and Art. I, Sect. 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution.”

In the original letter to Huebsch, Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor had observed: “Many of these ‘prayers’ are nothing less than sermons meant to proselytize and advance the Christian faith to the Wisconsin general public.”

The pair called the Assembly’s practice of opening sessions with strongly sectarian prayers “an egregious violation,” which advances the Christian faith, excludes nonChristian and nonreligious legislators, staffers and members of the public, and denigrates other faiths.

“Fifteen of these sixteen formal opening prayers by legislators from May 16, 2007 to May 28, 2008 were explicitly Christian. One Representative implied that nations which do not adhere to the Christian faith fall into ruin. There was even a pseudo-exorcism against the ‘Evil One’!,” Gaylor noted in her follow-up letter to Speaker Sheridan.

“It is a fact that some legislators, to honor their personal convictions, must avoid being present at the call to order of the Assembly,” the letter added. Assembly rules require members to be present, creating coercion.

It is significant, Gaylor noted in her follow-up to Sheridan, that the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as January 2009 let stand a second decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against Christian prayers by city government.

The Foundation’s federal challenge of paid prayers by the Wisconsin Legislature, filed in March 1978, languished in federal court for five years, then was thrown out following the 1983 Marsh decision, which permitted nonsectarian prayers in the Nebraska legislature on the basis of “tradition.”

The Wisconsin Senate rules require that any prayer be nondenominational. “It’s been 31 years since we first protested unlawful prayer by the Wisconsin Legislature,” noted Gaylor. “It’s time to end this violation!”

In early February, the Dodge County, Wis., Board temporarily suspended its practice of prayers, after Foundation attorney Rebecca Kratz noted in a letter that the practice of hosting Christian prayers led by a supervisor/Christian minister violates Supreme Court guidelines over government prayer. That complaint originated with Dodge County Supervisor Dean Fuller, who asked the Foundation to write a back-up letter about the violation.

Gaylor said that government officials are free to pray silently, or to stop at the church of their choice to and from government meetings, but should not introduce religion into civil affairs.

The Dodge Co. Board continues to debate the matter.

Pressure is on to resume prayers. Contact:

Russell Kottke, Chair Dodge County Board 127 E Oak St Juneau WI 53039

Freedom From Religion Foundation