INDIANAPOLIS | Attorney General Greg Zoeller believes Indiana may play a key role in a national question of religion and government whose answer is certain to divide an already fractured country.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to review a federal appellate court decision prohibiting the town of Greece, N.Y., from beginning its Town Board meetings with a prayer led by a consistently Christian "chaplain of the month."
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May 2012 the practice suggests an "official affiliation with a particular religion," in violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on the establishment of a state religion.
Zoeller, a Republican, led a coalition of 18 states that asked the Supreme Court to hear the town's appeal.
Now that the nation's high court has agreed, he expects Indiana also will write an "amicus," or friend-of-the-court, brief urging the nine justices to overturn the appellate court decision and permit prayer prior to government meetings.
"We're fearing a federal government, or a state government, establishing a specific religion and it hasn't happened over all the history and tradition and it's unlikely to in the future," Zoeller said. "So should we really be so technically oriented?"
Zoeller said other states look to Indiana to lead on this question based on its experiences in court battles that ultimately preserved prayer prior to sessions of the Indiana House.
In 2005, a federal judge in Indianapolis decreed the House's almost entirely Christian, and sometimes proselytizing, prayers were an unconstitutional endorsement of a particular religion, notwithstanding a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting special status to legislative prayer.
The decision was condemned by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and Indiana's Republican members of Congress, including current Gov. Mike Pence, who responded by trying to deny federal courts the authority to rule in any future case involving legislative prayer.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the no-prayer decision in 2007 by finding the four plaintiffs, who sued over the cost of legislative time used by state-sanctioned prayer, were not sufficiently harmed to bring the lawsuit.
The appeals court never ruled on whether legislative prayer constitutes unconstitutional government endorsement of a particular religion.
Seeking to avoid future lawsuits, the House rearranged its schedule and the prayer is currently conducted prior to the chamber's officially being called to order each afternoon.
Lawmakers who believe the daily session shouldn't begin with a prayer typically refrain from entering the House until the prayer is completed.
Across the rotunda, the Indiana Senate still comes to order and is then led in prayer, usually by a Christian visiting minister. Senate prayers during the 2013 session lasted up to 10 minutes and personal requests to Jesus were common.
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said she and several other senators keep track of the overtly Christian nature of the Senate prayers, which she contends are unconstitutional.
"I believe that Thomas Jefferson meant it when he said we should have separation of church and state, and that is a more long-lasting tradition than any other tradition in this country," Tallian said.
She also questions why Zoeller is using state resources to advocate positions in federal courts the legislature hasn't instructed him to take.
"That seems a little over-the-top to me. I don't think he has any business doing that," Tallian said. "It shouldn't be his bailiwick to defend cases from other states. He certainly has enough things going on in the state of Indiana."
Zoeller said federal court judges have asked states to weigh in more often on important cases, especially when the state is not being sued, and he is happy to oblige.
"These things have a huge impact on our state and the local governments so they're interested in hearing our voice," Zoeller said.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the town of Greece case during its nine-month term that begins in October.
A ruling is likely sometime before June 2014.