Wednesday, October 31, 2007

7th Circuit Holds Taxpayers Lack Standing To Challenge Indiana Legislative Prayer

Yesterday in Hinrichs v. Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Indiana General Assembly, (7th Cir., Oct. 30, 2007), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, held that Indiana taxpayers lack standing to challenge the opening of Indiana legislative sessions with sectarian prayers. The majority applied two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions-- DaimlerChrsyler Corp. v. Cuno, a 2006 case that held state taxpayer suits in federal court must meet the same criteria as federal taxpayer suits, and Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc., a 2007 case that interpreted federal taxpayer standing narrowly. The majority opinion in the 7th Circuit relied on the fact that there was no specific legislative appropriation establishing the program that invited guest ministers to deliver invocations. The majority said that the minimal costs associated with the program have nothing to do with the content of the prayers offered. Judge Wood dissenting argued that the House Rule calling for opening each session with prayer is a legislative act that creates a pocketbook injury to plaintiff taxpayers, and therefore gives them standing.

Covering yesterday's decision, the Indianapolis Star quotes ACLU attorney Ken Falk. He says if the legislature resumes sectarian prayer, his group would be willing to file suit on behalf of a person who would likely have standing-- someone who regularly attends legislative sessions and must listen to the prayers.

Meanwhile the American Jewish Committee issued a release saying that yesterday's decision "is extremely alarming because it denies taxpayers the right to challenge a legislative act that in practice gives preferential access to Christian clergy in determining who shall present a daily legislative prayer." Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter released a statement in support of the decision, saying: "Legislative prayer is a worthy act that I think the State should protect within relevant legal precedents."

Numerous prior postings on the case can be accessed at this link. Links to a recording of the Sept. 2006 oral arguments before the 7th Circuit , and to the earlier opinion staying the lower court's injunction pending appeal, are also available online.