Watchdog Asks Wisconsin Assembly to Stop Praying (Again)

And FFRF Complaint to Dodge County Board Results in Temporarily Suspended Prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based national watchdog working to keep church and state separate, 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 to open the Assembly 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 their original letter to Huebsch, which created a stir but which went unanswered, 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 during 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 ruins. 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,” her letter added. Assembly rules require members to be present, creating coercion.

In a Feb. 6 letter to Speaker Sheridan, Gaylor wrote: “These practices run afoul of the narrow exceptions to legislative prayer permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court, because they often blatantly proselytized and advanced the Christian faith, excluded nonChristian and nonreligious legislators, staffers and members of the public, even denigrating other faiths. The prayers have also been routinely addressed to visitors and the public, which further runs afoul of Marsh v. Chambers (1983).

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 Freedom From Religion 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 Foundation persuaded the Wisconsin Senate for at least one term to drop formal prayers in the 1980s (by asking to let Dan Barker, an ordained minister who became an atheist, to give a freethought invocation). The Wisconsin Senate has largely dropped prayer from many of its openings, and its 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 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 commented: “If our Founding Fathers did not find it necessary to pray when they adopted our secular and godless Constitution, we cannot imagine why local government boards need to request divine intervention over sewers or liquor licenses, or Wisconsin law.”

She 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 Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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