Judge refuses to block

Chicago Tribune, Sep. 10, 2002
By Matt O’Connor

A federal judge today refused to bar the reading of an interdenominational prayer during a Daley Plaza ceremony Wednesday commemorating the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The planned Sept. 11 memorial has a plainly secular purpose,” U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle Sr. said in a 12-page opinion handed down this afternoon, denying a motion for a preliminary injunction to block the reading of The Chicago Prayer of Hope, Unity and Remembrance.

“The reading of the prayer, ringing of bells and location of the ceremony do not constitute excessive entanglement of government and religion,” Norgle said.

“There is an undeniable religious aspect to ceremonies such as this, for people often seek solace in religion after events as horrific as Sept. 11,” the judge said. “These religious aspects, however, occur separately and apart from any governmental action.”

Chicago resident Clint Harris, 42, and his 6-year-old daughter filed suit Monday challenging the reading of the prayer at the city-sponsored event as an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

In court papers, lawyers for Harris called Chicago’s commemoration plans an “egregious instance of church/state entanglement” that “cannot be described as other than a religious ceremony.”

The suit alleged the city enlisted the help of religious leaders to write an interdenominational prayer and that it would force schoolchildren — including Harris’ daughter — to “share in the observance.” City officials have denied asking teachers to lead prayers or distribute copies of a prayer.

In court today, the plaintiffs argued the city’s ceremony would be of religious nature, as it would take place in Daley Plaza near the seat of city government, with religious leaders in attendance.

But Norgle said, “To succeed on this point, Harris must demonstrate that the city’s actual purpose in planning this ceremony is to advance religion. Harris’ motion utterly fails to carry this burden.”

Richard D. Grossman, Harris’ lawyer, said after the hearing there wasn’t enough time to appeal Norgle’s ruling.

The suit was brought at the urging of Rob Sherman, an atheist activist who lives in the suburbs, and would have had no standing to bring suit against the city in this instance. Sherman said he asked Harris, a city resident, to be a plaintiff in the action.

Sherman declared victory outside court, saying the city essentially had backed down from its original plan to make the prayer “the centerpiece of the ceremony” and to have a mass reading of the prayer.

Now, the city will have several religious leaders read one verse each, so the prayer now is “one component of many” in the ceremony, Sherman said.

“It lessens the offensive constitutional element,” Sherman said, adding he still believed the reading of the prayer would be unconstitutional.

Mardell Nereim, chief assistant corporation counsel representing the city in court today, said, “We felt confident (the ceremony) was constitutional.”

When asked about Sherman’s claims of victory, Nereim said, “This was an evolving ceremony, but it didn’t change in its essential aspects.”

She noted three minutes of silence also was “an important aspect of the ceremony,” and said religious leaders had approached the city and asked that a prayer be included in the ceremony “to help people find solace.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 11, 2002.
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