Supreme Court Brief Filed on Behalf of Hindu Americans in Public Prayer Case

Date: September 17, 2005

TAMPA, FL - Less than a year after becoming the first Hindu American group to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief with the United States Supreme Court, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) continued its legal campaign with another brief in support of a petition for writ of certiorari. The case, Simpson v. Chesterfield County, involves legislative prayer. While the HAF's first brief opposing a Ten Commandments display on public grounds in Texas was already scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court, a writ of certiorari is a request to the Court to review a case.

"References to Hinduism and Hindu Americans, written on behalf of practicing Hindus, finally appeared in the annals of Supreme Court jurisprudence with our brief last year," said Suhag Shukla, Esq., legal counsel for HAF. "We believe the issues raised in this second brief are of even greater importance to not only Hindu Americans, but all Americans."

The latest HAF brief was co-signed by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Association of American Indian Affairs as well as the Interfaith Alliance. It was also supported by numerous prominent Hindu and Jain organizations, including American Hindu Association, Arya Samaj USA, Center for the Study of Religion and Civilization, Dharma Association of North America (DANAM), Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA), Forum for Secularism and Development, Hindu International Council Against Defamation (HICAD), Hindu University of America, Infinity Foundation, Interfaith Freedom Foundation, International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Jain Society of Metropolitan Washington, Navyashastra, North American South Asian Bar Association (NASABA), Saiva Siddhanta Church, Young Jain Professionals and Young Indian Culture Group, Inc.

"Indeed this is an indication of the importance of the issue and that this kind of discrimination affects us all beyond cultural, social, linguistic and religious lines," said Suhag Shukla, Legal Counsel for HAF.

The Board of Supervisors of Chesterfield County, Virginia has been opening its meetings with invocations given by local clergy who volunteer for the task. This practice began after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1980's that legislative bodies could begin their sessions with non-sectarian prayer without violating the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Cynthia Simpson, a member of the Wiccan faith who wanted to lead prayer, was told that she could not pray at the meetings because she did not practice a religion "within the Judeo-Christian tradition." The Wiccan faith is based on a belief in unity with the earth and the idea that God is not separate from human.

Ms. Simpson filed suit and the lower court ruled in her favor ordering the County to change the policy to "include all faiths or to stop using the policy altogether." The county appealed and a very conservative panel of judges from the Fourth Circuit Court reversed the lower court holding that such discrimination was permissible under current laws.

"This is perhaps the most blatant affirmation of religious discrimination by any court to date," stated Nikhil Joshi, Esq., member of the HAF Board of Directors. "If allowed to stand, the Fourth Circuit's decision will allow Chesterfield County to continue to selectively dole out certain governmental privileges to members of majority religions over others."

The HAF was represented by the Washington, D.C. law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw, LLP. A team of attorneys working with HAF argued in the brief that the Circuit Court's ruling contradicts the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by allowing the government to discriminate among religions. Further, the decision also opens the door to unnecessary entanglement of government and religion by allowing government officials to make theological conclusions about different traditions.

"Governments are extraordinarily poorly suited to be arbiters of theology, and when they arrogate that role, nothing good can come of it," the HAF brief argues. "Not only are they certain to err, but they cannot help driving wedges between religions and between denominations of the same religion."

The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case sometime this fall. Numerous civil rights law experts and advocacy groups are predicting Simpson v. Chesterfield County will definitely be accepted by the Supreme Court and placed on next year's docket.

The full amicus curiae (friend of the court brief) may be viewed at www.hinduamericanfoundation.org/Simpson.pdf

HAF is a non-profit, non-partisan organization promoting the Hindu and American ideals of understanding, tolerance and pluralism.