GUEST COMMENTARY: Supreme Court needs to offer clarity on prayers

2013-08-13T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Supreme Court needs to offer clarity on prayersBy Greg Zoeller nwitimes.com
August 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The recent Times editorial “Government meetings aren’t prayer meetings” provides a welcome opportunity to explain why the office of the attorney general files friend-of-the-court briefs on cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the brief we recently filed, Indiana was joined by 22 other states in advocating for the legal authority of our government clients in our respective states. That is the statutory duty of the attorney general: to advocate on the side of state government authority or defend the use of state authority.

There are many who will argue against the state’s authority, as is their right in our adversarial system of justice, but my sworn duty is to represent the state and argue for the state’s interests.

One of the constant themes in our justice system is the need for certainty. Currently, attorneys who advise state government officials are unable to say with certainty whether government entities may continue their tradition of allowing a prayer to be offered before the official start of a legislative meeting.

If the U.S. Supreme Court resolves the conflicting decisions of lower courts that have created this uncertainty, then we can provide informed legal advice to our government clients based on the court’s guidance.

In our Supreme Court brief, we don’t argue that government entities either must or should allow prayer; we simply argue they would not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if they choose to allow prayer.

The long history of allowing legislative prayer in this nation has not resulted in an official state religion being established, and permitting this tradition to continue will not establish one in the future, we contend. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed its own legal brief in this case defending the fact that Congress opens with prayer.

The Times' editorial argues that people attending government meetings should pray on their own, which is certainly an option. But the fact that Hammond discontinued opening its meetings with prayer because “the practice is likely unconstitutional” demonstrates why we need the U.S. Supreme Court to serve its function of providing certainty on this question.

While the courts perform their function, the office of the attorney general will perform our function in arguing on behalf of our state government clients so they may make informed decisions on what they believe is appropriate, without fear of expensive litigation.

Greg Zoeller is Indiana's attorney general. The opinions are the writer's.

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