Letter to the Assembly Speaker

The Honorable Michael Huebsch, Assembly Speaker
Wisconsin State Capitol
Madison WI 53702

RE: Request to Halt Unlawful Assembly Prayers

Dear Speaker:

On behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. and our Wisconsin membership, we respectfully request that the Wisconsin State Assembly cease and desist opening sessions with prayers/sermons by either representatives or clergy. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. (FFRF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, representing hundreds of Wisconsin citizens and more than 12,000 members across the United States.

The Wisconsin State Assembly’s long-standing practice of opening its sessions with strongly sectarian Christian prayers is an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause. These prayers often blatantly proselytize and advance the Christian faith, exclude nonChristian and nonreligious legislators, staffers and members of the public, and denigrate other faiths. Officiants routinely address and refer to visitors in the Assembly Chamber, to Wisconsin citizens, and the public. Legislators and clergy routinely invoke the Christian deity, “Jesus Christ,” as well as “the Holy Spirit” and Christian prophets and saints. Many of these “prayers” are nothing less than sermons meant to proselytize and advance the Christian faith to the Wisconsin general public.

FFRF’s legal intern, Sarah Braasch, analyzed the sixteen prayers/sermons led by Representatives for which video archives exist (May 16, 2007 to May 28, 2008). She found that fifteen of these sixteen formal opening prayers by legislators during that one-year period were explicitly Christian. These Christian prayers were not merely in the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Thirteen invoked the Christian deity (nine of which explicitly acknowledged either “Jesus,” “Christ,” and/or “Jesus Christ”), eight quoted or read from the bible, and three invoked the “Holy Spirit.” One Representative implied that nations which do not adhere to the Christian faith fall into ruins. Another Representative quoted the Pope and indicated that she held her faith in higher esteem, as a guiding legal principle, than Wisconsin state law.

One Representative went so far as to exorcize the Assembly Chamber. He 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.” Shockingly, one Representative made an implicit reference to working against faiths other than Christianity, when he implored, “Oh God, Our Judge, save us from holding a faith that cripples the future, and makes a better tomorrow an impossibility.”

The prayer/sermon practices of the Wisconsin State Assembly flagrantly exceed the constraints of the 1983 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), which carved out a narrow exception to the Establishment Clause for legislative prayer as a nod to history and custom. The abuses in the Wisconsin State Assembly chambers render its practices unconstitutional. The Marsh exception was confined to a situation involving a nonsectarian, nondenominational prayer, led by an officiant who had not been selected based upon any impermissible religious motive, and which was addressed to the body of legislators present, and to no one else. Additionally, Marsh held that legislators must have the option not to participate. The prayer opportunity may not be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” The prayer/sermon practices of the Wisconsin State Assembly violate all of the Marsh stipulations. We remain particularly concerned at the coercion involved in the rule ordering all Wisconsin Representatives not to miss the opening prayer.

The Supreme Court further clarified the Marsh analysis in its 1989 decision, County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573 (1989). In Allegheny, the Court equated legislative prayer, of the sort defined in Marsh, with similar practices of ceremonial deism, devoid of religious significance and more analogous to a solemn call to order. The Court found that, even if history and custom had saved nonsectarian legislative prayer, “history cannot legitimate practices that demonstrate the governments allegiance to a particular sect or creed.” Additionally, the Court reiterated that “not even the ‘unique history’ of legislative prayer, can justify contemporary legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief.” Legislative prayer as it is being practiced and preached in the Wisconsin State Assembly, cannot fall within the constraints of the Marsh exception, regardless of history or custom.

The Wisconsin Senate has taken an enlightened path, and has dropped official prayer from its openings, further demonstrating that in fact opening legislative bodies with prayer is not an overarching tradition or custom in Wisconsin. Furthermore, since the Marsh decision, two appellate circuit courts and several district courts across the country have declared unconstitutional the practice of opening governmental bodies with sectarian prayer, or opening with prayer that invariably tends to be officiated by clergy or officiants of a particular faith.

On behalf of FFRF and its Wisconsin members, we ask that the Wisconsin State Assembly end its unnecessary, coercive and unconstitutional practice of opening sessions with prayers/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. May we hear from you at your earliest convenience?


Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor


Mark Gottlieb, Speaker Pro Tempore
Patrick E. Fuller, Chief Clerk
Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald
Rep. James Kreuser
All Members of the Wisconsin Assembly


Freedom From Religion Foundation

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