FFRF: Wisconsin State Assembly shouldn’t have a prayer!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based national watchdog working to keep church and state separate, formally put leadership in the Wisconsin State Assembly on notice that its pervasively sectarian prayers are in violation of the law. FFRF objected to the "histrionic displays of politicized religiosity" in the Assembly Chambers, and countless sermons to state legislators to act to "glorify Jesus Christ."

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Foundation, which represents over 16,000 freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) nationwide and 1,300 in Wisconsin, charged in her letter on Wednesday to Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald: "The Wisconsin State Assembly's practice of opening its sessions with strongly sectarian Christian prayers/sermons is an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause. These prayers/sermons are delivered by the Representatives or by clergy hand-selected and endorsed by the Representatives to advance their own particular Christian denominations."

The Assembly's practice impermissibly proselytizes the Christian faith, excludes non-Christian and nonreligious legislators, staffers and members of the public, and denigrates other faiths, said Gaylor.

The practice violates clear Supreme Court parameters restricting government prayers to nonsectarian and nondenominational, also requiring they not be led by officiants selected for impermissible religious motives, or be directed at constituents. The Assembly practice fails on all counts, "flagrantly exceeding" these restraints.

Lawyer Sarah Braasch, who conducted an extensive study of the prayers for FFRF, found that 100% of Representative-led prayers for the 2009/2010 legislative session were Christian. All but one invoked the Christian deity, Jesus Christ, or some variant. The vast majority of clergy invited to lead prayers on behalf of representatives were also Christian and invoked Jesus. The prayers often cited biblical scripture.

"A reasonable observer could not help but perceive a government endorsement and advancement of the Christian faith to the exclusion of all other faiths," Gaylor pointed out.

For example, Rep. Daniel LeMahieu delivered an invocation on Feb. 8, 2009, urging: "We thank you for hearing our prayers; we know that we come before you humbly, not because we deserve your presence, but because your Son, Jesus Christ, earned that for us with his death on the cross. . . . In Your Name we pray. Amen."

Rep. Pat Strachota prayed before the Assembly on April 15, 2010: "God of my Fathers, Lord of Mercy, who have made all things by your Word . . . . We have no power, honor, or authority apart from you, oh Lord. It is your truth that we seek in all things, as we gather in your presence."

Such displays of "politicized religiosity and government-endorsed proselytization . . . should embarrass the Assembly into dropping prayer," said Gaylor. "Yet the Representatives are shameless in their exploitation of the prayer opportunity for the advancement of their own Christian beliefs."

Gaylor praised the action of the State Senate in Hawaii last week, which ended its practice of opening sessions with prayer following a history of divisiveness. The Senate was embarrassed by TV footage recording state/church activist and FFRF member Mitch Kahle being roughed up by Senate officials for objecting civilly to prayers last year.

FFRF objected to the Assembly's unlawful prayer practice to previous Assembly Speakers in 2008 and 2009. FFRF hand-delivered its request that prayers be dropped to Assembly Speaker Fitzgerald, Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Kramer, Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller, along with extensive excerpts of the many problematic prayers, and a chart documenting the sectarian and overwhelmingly Christian emphasis of legislative prayers. All members of the Wisconsin State Assembly received a copy of FFRF's letter.

Selected audio clips/transcriptions of Assembly Prayers:

Rep. Barbara Toles (D) Milwaukee, on June 18, 2009 (audio)
Rep. Phil Montgomery (R) Green Bay, Sept. 22, 2009 (audio)
Rep. Pat Strachota (R) West Bend, on April 15, 2010 (pdf, audio)
Rep. Daniel LeMahieu (R) Oostburg, on Nov. 3, 2009 (audio)
Rep. Richard Spanbauer (R) Oshkosh, on Jan. 19, 2010 (pdf, audio)
Rep. Gordon Hintz (D) Oshkosh, on April 20, 2010 (pdf, audio)
Pastor Krystal Williams for Rep. Annette Polly Williams, (D) Milwaukee, on Dec. 15, 2010 (pdf, audio)

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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