In the mid-1990s, the National Constitution Center surveyed national attitudes and beliefs about the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They concluded that Americans “revere” the Constitution—and have virtually no idea what’s in it. 


I frequently find myself thinking about that study, because it goes a long way toward explaining why many of our public debates generate more heat than light.


Indulge me by taking a little test (no peeking at the answer!) You go to your local license branch when it opens, and wait with a roomful of others while clerks complete opening preparations. Before they begin business, the branch manager asks for silence. A prayer to Jesus comes over the speaker system. The clerks then join in a chorus of a hymn, after which the branch officially opens for business. This is (a) an exercise of free speech rights, or (b) a violation of the Establishment Clause?


The answer is (b). Why?


The Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government may not do. One of those things is “establish” (sponsor, endorse or favor) religious beliefs. Another thing governments may not do is interfere with the private expression—religious or otherwise—of citizens. So the first question a court must ask when a plaintiff is alleging a First Amendment violation is: was this individual expression, which is protected? Or is it government speech, which must follow constitutional rules?


In the case of the license branch, it is pretty clear that the manager controls the speaker system and gets to decide who uses it, and for what purposes. The manager is a government employee, the BMV is a government agency, and that makes the opening prayer government speech. If the manager was on a busy street corner praying, government could not properly interfere with his devotions; when he is acting on behalf of the state, it is obliged to do so.


People fulminating that the recent ruling about prayer at the statehouse was a violation of “free speech” should read Judge Hamilton’s decision (which—despite the Speaker’s assertions—was based upon unambiguous precedent). As Hamilton points out, citizens cannot just wander up and offer prayers from the Speaker’s podium; it is not a “street corner,” but a venue controlled entirely by government. Since what is said there must be considered government speech, it is subject to rules that could not be constitutionally applied to private speech. One of those rules is that if prayers are to be offered in such an environment, those prayers must be genuinely inclusive. Not just inclusive of Christians (although, according to the Christian plaintiffs, they didn’t even pass that test), but inclusive of all Indiana citizens.


I have sometimes used this space to be critical of Governor Daniels, but in this case, I think he got it just about right when he said it was “regrettable” that a compromise could not have been reached without litigation. I’m told the plaintiffs tried.


Evidently, the Speaker figured political victories aren’t won in court.