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August 18, 2013

ZOELLER: Duty calls in filing brief in prayer case

Why would the Indiana Attorney General wade into a United States Supreme Court case over the opening prayers said at town council meetings in western New York state?

It’s a reasonable question Hoosiers might ask after my office filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could decide whether the widespread practice of prayer at the start of legislative meetings is constitutional. In analyzing the long history and tradition of opening meetings with prayer, our brief contends that prayers initiated by citizens themselves — including prayers that invoke God, Jesus, Allah and other deities — do not violate the First Amendment prohibition on government establishing religion. Our brief argues that government assemblies are not proselytizing if they allow citizen expression of such prayers at the start of meetings. The Texas attorney general co-authored our brief and a bipartisan group of AGs from 21 other states signed it, reflecting the legal importance of the question.

As Indiana’s attorney general, I serve as lawyer for state government and argue on the side of state authority and in defense of state officials’ actions. My office routinely files friend-of-the-court briefs, also called amicus briefs, in Supreme Court cases where Indiana and other states are not plaintiffs or defendants but have a legal interest that the Court ought to hear. Since 2009, my office has authored or co-authored 23 amicus briefs that other states joined, and we joined 89 briefs other states have authored, at no additional cost to taxpayers.

When important legal issues involving state authority come before the U.S. Supreme Court, my office cannot shrink from a case or stand mute because the case is controversial. It’s important for Indiana to weigh in on the upcoming Supreme Court case of Galloway v. the Town of Greece, New York, because the Indiana House of Representatives was subjected to a similar lawsuit in recent years. Municipal and state officials face uncertainty when deciding whether to start legislative meetings with prayer, and the Supreme Court could bring an end to that confusion.

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