- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

A group of Midwestern women touring Washington recently found out the hard way that prayer is not allowed on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Haven Howard, 50, of Branson, Mo., and six friends had finished a tour of the court Sept. 20, when one suggested they kneel for a spontaneous prayer on the court's marble steps.

A uniformed U.S. Supreme Court Police officer hurried over to them and told the women they could not pray on the court's steps.

Jo Elaine Davis, 50, who had suggested the prayer, said she and the others told the officer they were "just talking to the Father." "[He replied:] 'You should talk to the Father, but you can't do it here,'" Mrs. Davis said.

"That's when [Mrs. Howard] asked him if we have freedom of speech, and the officer said 'not here,'" Mrs. Davis said.

The officer told the women to leave the court's grounds.

"We were a bit shocked and surprised," Mrs. Davis said. "Who would have thought that, in America, you couldn't just bow your knee and have a prayer?"

Supreme Court officials this week said that, while there is no record of the incident, it sounded like the officer did nothing wrong.

Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg cited a federal statute providing "that it shall be unlawful to parade, stand or move in procession or assemblages in the Supreme Court building or grounds."

"If an officer feels that a group of people is assembling, he would ask the group to move down to the sidewalk around the building, where the statute doesn't apply," Mrs. Arberg said.

Recent history shows that the Supreme Court Police force's 121 officers rarely hasten to arrest those who violate the more-than-50-year-old statute.

While public displays of prayer would be considered assemblages, Mrs. Arberg said, the statute is largely meant to deter demonstrations.

Arrests under the statute don't always stand up in court.

In June, a D.C. Superior Court judge acquitted seven persons who were arrested by Supreme Court Police for holding a 30-foot-long banner declaring: "Stop Executions!"

The protesters had argued their First Amendment rights were violated and that police failed to give fair warning before seizing the banner and making arrests.

However, during 1998's National Day of Prayer, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a Presbyterian pastor, was arrested for praying on the front steps while reporters and several dozen supporters looked on.

During a his trial in D.C. Superior Court, Mr. Mahoney, who heads the Christian Defense Coalition, argued that prayer is not banned by the federal statute. By simply kneeling to pray, Mr. Mahoney said, no law was broken.

The court found him guilty in April 1999, yielding to the argument of prosecutors that the statute had been violated because Mr. Mahoney had invited dozens of supporters to watch him pray in effect turning the prayer into a demonstration on the Supreme Court's steps.

Legal Times reported that testimony during the trial revealed that the Supreme Court Police follow no clear set of guidelines when deciding whether the federal statute has been violated.

In the case of Mrs. Howard and her friends, Mrs. Arberg said that, while an officer should have informed the group of the statute before enforcing it, even if the women were not arrested and left the court's grounds peacefully.

Mrs. Howard and Mrs. Davis said they were not aware of the statute when they kneeled to pray, saying they think it is unfair.

"We should all have the opportunity and privilege to pray. We were just trying to pray for the Supreme Court, for our nation and for our leaders," Mrs. Howard said.

Joe Sbranti, 40, who was touring Washington and the Supreme Court Tuesday with his family from the San Francisco Bay area, agreed in a secular manner.

"I don't see why someone praying on the steps is any different from someone listening to a ball game on a little radio," Mr. Sbranti said.

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