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Atheist group wants prayer out of Assembly

The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wants state Assembly Speaker Rep. Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, to stop opening daily sessions of the Assembly with a prayer or sermon from members or invited clergy.

In a letter to Huebsch and copied to all members of the Assembly, the group's co-presidents, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor called the Assembly's tradition of opening sessions "with strongly sectarian Christian prayers" an "egregious violation of the US Constitution's Establishment Clause.

The FFRF based its request on a review of video archives from May 16, 2007 through May 28, 2008 and said 15 of the 16 openings led by legislators "were explicitly Christian."

The letter said the "prayer/sermon practices of the Wisconsin State Assembly flagrantly exceed the constraints of the 1983 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, which set an exception to the Establishment Clause for legislative prayer as a "nod to history and custom."

The letter asks "the Wisconsin State Assembly end its unnecessary, coercive and unconstitutional practice of opening sessions with prayers/sermons."

Further, the letter asks, "We respectfully request that the Assembly leadership take immediate steps to end this clear violation of the First Amendment and Art. I, Sect. 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution."

In their letter the group noted that the state Senate does not open with a prayer.

"The Wisconsin Senate has taken an enlightened path, and has dropped official prayer from its openings, further demonstrating that in fact opening legislative bodies with prayer is not an overarching tradition or custom in Wisconsin." Barker and Gaylor wrote.

The group also claims that members of the Assembly are coerced into participating because of a rule requiring all representatives to be in the chamber at the beginning of the session.

The Legislature is not expected to be in session for the balance of 2008, having concluded regular and special sessions earlier this year.

Huebsch's office did not issue a response to the request.

The FFRF has been at the core of several anti-religion controversies.

In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the group in their lawsuit to stop funding for President George Bush's faith-based initiatives program.

They also recently tried to purchase a piece of land owned by the city of Holmen which had a cross on it. The city instead sold the land to the local Lions Club which kept the cross in place.

The group also sued the City of La Crosse over a statue of the ten commandments in a downtown park.

The city sold the small plot of land on which the statue stood to the local Eagles club, the same club which had donated the statue to the city in the 1960s.

In their suit the FFRF said the sale of the land should be undone and the statue removed.

They initially won their suit, but the city appealed and in March 2005 a federal appeals court ruled that the statue could stay in place.

Dick Wheeler of the Madison-based Wheeler Report contributed to this story.