Watchdog Asks Wisconsin Assembly to Stop Praying

Legislators Sermonize, Pray to Jesus, Cast Out “Evil One” on Assembly Floor

(Madison, Wis.) The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national watchdog working to keep church and state separate, has asked leadership in the Wisconsin State Assembly to stop opening sessions with prayer, pointing out that one representative went so far as to “exorcize the Assembly Chamber.”

In a letter to Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch, Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor pointed out: “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.

The Foundation’s legal intern, Sarah Braasch, found that 16 of the 17 “prayers/sermons” led by representatives and broadcast between May 16, 2007, and May 28, 2008, were “explicitly Christian.” Rep. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, pleaded: “Come, Holy Spirit of God, and fill this place today. Jesus, in your name, and by the power of your spirit, I come against the Evil One. And, I ask that he be cast from this place, this day.” 

Rep. Sheryl Albers, R-Reedsburg, made reference to the Pope, and implied her allegiance was with religious, not civil law. 

Several legislators invoked various books or characters from the bible, and prayers. Typical of Christian references was this prayer by Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Oostburg: “And, send us your son, to die on the cross, to cover our sins, and the penalties of our sins.”

The Foundation pointed out that the religious practices of the Wisconsin State Assembly “flagrantly exceed the constraints” of a 1983 Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Chambers, which “carved out a narrow exception” for legislative prayer. Marsh holds that prayers must be nonsectarian, nondenominational, not led by an officiant selected upon any impermissible religious motive, and should be addressed only to the body of legislators present and not citizens. Marsh importantly requires that legislators have the option not to participate.

Gaylor called “shocking” the coercion involved in ordering all representatives to attend the opening prayer.

“On behalf of FFRF and its Wisconsin membership, we ask that the Wisconsin State Assembly end its unnecessary, coercive and unconstitutional practice of opening sessions with prayer/sermons. We respectfully request 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,” wrote the Foundation.

In coverage by Associated Press, Rep. Moulton said he stood by his statements, including asking Jesus to “command that any satanic or evil forces be cast from the Assembly that day.” He referred to the Foundation as “a very wacko group that is completely out of tune with mainstream America.”

“We thank Sarah Braasch, our legal intern, for her extraordinary research in documenting over-the-top praying at the Wisconsin Assembly,” said Barker and Gaylor.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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