(CNSNews.com) – The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) wants assurances that an Arizona Christian school teacher will not be arrested if she prays on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
According to attorneys from ADF, Supreme Court police forced teacher Maureen Rigo from the building steps and told her the act of bowing her head and praying on the Supreme Court steps was unlawful.
A Supreme Court spokeswoman, meanwhile, told CNSNews.com that the Court does not have a policy prohibiting prayer.
Nathan Kellum, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, said on May 5 of this year Mrs. Rigo and her class from Wickenburg Christian Academy in Wickenburg, Ariz., visited the Supreme Court for an educational tour. While standing on the Oval Plaza of the Court steps, the group began to pray quietly. Despite having prayed on Court grounds without incident during a previous trip, a Supreme Court police officer interrupted the prayer, informed the group they could not pray in that location, and guided them toward the street.
Kellum said when Rigo contacted the Supreme Court Police headquarters, a Supreme Court Police sergeant -- whose identity he did not disclose -- confirmed the policy. The sergeant, Kellum said, asked Rigo if her group contained more than three persons, and if they bowed their heads. Rigo answered “Yes” to both questions.
Then sergeant allegedly told Rigo that her actions were, “definitely contrary to the law” and added: “The police officer acted correctly forcing you to leave under threat of arrest because you violated federal statute.”
The Supreme Court Police did not comment to CNSNews.com, but an official statement from the Court, issued by a court spokeswoman, indicates that assemblages engaged in activities which may draw onlookers are illegal, but the Court does not prohibit prayer on Supreme Court grounds.
“The Court does not have a policy prohibiting prayer,” said Patricia McCabe Estrada, deputy public information officer for the U.S. Supreme Court, in a statement to CNSNews.com.
The Court's policy regarding the use of most public areas at the Court has been to permit “activity related to the business of the Court, including traditional tourist activity and ingress and egress for visitors, but not to permit demonstrations and other types of activity that may tend to draw a crowd or onlookers,” she said.
“In addition, under 40 U.S.C. section 6135, it is unlawful to parade, stand or move in processions or assemblages in the building and grounds, including the plaza and steps, but not including the perimeter sidewalks,” the statement concluded.
The federal statute cited states: “It is unlawful to parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.”
But Kellum explained to CNSNews.com that while the statute’s intent seemed to be focused on protests, the application of the law by the Supreme Court police could easily be construed as banning public prayer -- and infringing upon First Amendment rights.
“While the statute doesn’t specifically mention prayer, the way they apply it bans prayer,” Kellum said.
The statute bans assemblages that bring public notice to a movement, Kellum noted.
“If you consider Christianity a movement, and you bow your head, that’s bringing public notice to it,” he added.
The Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter to the Supreme Court police Marshall Pamela Talkin, public information officer Kathleen Arberg, and Court counsel Scott Harris last Thursday asking for assurance that Rigo and her students will be allowed to pray on Court grounds without being harassed during their next visit.
“The only logical explanation for prohibiting Mrs. Rigo’s activities, while allowing other conversations, pertains to the viewpoint of Mrs. Rigo’s expression,” the letter stated. “Evidently, people may engage in all sorts of conversational expression on Supreme Court grounds unless that expression happens to involve prayer. In doing so, the Supreme Court police have not targeted a subject matter or class of expression, but targeted a particular viewpoint for censorship. They have singled out and censored religious prayer as the only form of conversation to be silenced.”
If Rigo does not receive written assurance that her right to pray is protected within three weeks, Kellum said the Alliance Defense Fund will pursue federal court action.