An Unexpected Blessing

Friday, March 8, 2013

An Unexpected Blessing

The Indiana Statehouse is a beautiful building. If you wander its halls, which I hope everyone has an opportunity to do, you begin to wonder, what exactly is in these rooms behind the very tall doors? Who works in them? What goes on there?

On the fourth floor of the Statehouse is one of these rooms, and unlike many others, the door is always open to elected officials, the many people who work in state government and the general public. It is also uncharacteristically quiet and peaceful. This place is called the Meditation Room, and it is an unexpected blessing to those who have business in Indiana’s capital building.

The Meditation Room, also informally known as the prayer room, has an interesting history dating back to the late 1950s and into the early 1960s. For those of us who aren’t old enough now to remember these days, suffice it to say that these were days of change in America.

In 1947, the United States Supreme Court first incorporated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment into the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. This meant that government actions in a state could now be scrutinized for having the effect of establishing a religion – and the lawyers soon went to work to test this new theory.

In 1958, a group of parents in New York, led by Steven Engel, challenged a school prayer which read, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” These parents sued the School Board, led by its President, William Vitale. This case, Engel v. Vitale, eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court, which, in 1962, found this type of school prayer to be unconstitutional and an improper establishment of religion.

There has been considerable legal debate over whether this type of school prayer actually constitutes government establishing religion and also whether the establishment clause should be applied to the states. After all, the First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law....” and says nothing about activities in the states.

Likewise, arguments have raged for 51 years over whether praying is really what was meant by the phrase “establishment of religion.” Regardless of these debates, what is not in dispute is what was occurring in Indiana at the time the Supreme Court was issuing its school prayer ruling.

In 1962, the same year that the Supreme Court heard oral arguments (April 3) and issued its opinion (June 25) restricting public prayer in schools, Indiana was dedicating a room in its Statehouse (its capital building) to meditation and prayer. The room was moved and rededicated in 1970, and since 1985 has been maintained by the State Assembly Women’s Club.

The room is pleasant, and contains stained glass motifs and several other items, including a print depicting George Washington praying at Valley Forge. It should also be pointed out that this is the first chapel installed in any capital in the United States.

We cannot get inside the head of those who were serving in Indiana government in 1962, but they must have been aware of the monumental ruling by the Supreme Court. They were making a statement about the importance of meditation and prayer in Indiana. This is some rich heritage and is an unexpected blessing that extends to us today. Isn’t it great to be a Hoosier?


State Rep. Tom Washburne serves as Vice Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He also serves on the Financial Institutions Committee and the Select Committee on Government Reduction. Rep. Washburne represents the entirety of Gibson County and portions of Knox, Pike, Vanderburgh and Posey counties.