Last week, I spent a couple of days in Indianapolis at a roundtable on law and the Protestant Reformation directed by my friend and sometime co-author, John McGinnis of Northwestern. During a break, I walked over to the Indiana Statehouse where, much to my surprise, I discovered the Indiana Chapel — that’s its official designation, though the sign on the door (right) says “Meditation Room” — on the fourth floor. It is apparently the first statehouse chapel in the United States, and one of only six, the others being in statehouses in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, and Texas. The chapel is a small room without sectarian symbols; to me, it resembles a Victorian parlor. There is, nonetheless, a Protestant feel to the room, no doubt created by the lectern at the front with a King James Bible, the hymnal on the electric organ, and the bookcase filled with Bibles, presumably for the Bible studies advertised on a bulletin board outside the door (below). According to this website, a private evangelical Christian group called the Capitol Commission of Indiana regularly uses the room, though it doesn’t seem other groups are excluded. I don’t know if anyone has ever thought to bring a lawsuit about the Indiana Chapel, but, assuming the room really is open to everybody on an equal basis, I don’t think an Establishment Clause challenge would succeed, either under the Lemon/endorsement test or Marsh v. Chambers, the legislative chaplain case. In 1988, the Seventh Circuit held that a similar non-sectarian chapel/meditation room in the Illinois state capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause.
2 thoughts on “The Indiana Statehouse Chapel”
Do you think that a court would draw a distinction between the presence of bibles on the lectern and bookshelves and the presence of religious symbols (like a cross) on the walls? With the number of statehouse chapels and the apparent length of time that they have been around, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen references to them in support of arguments against Establishment Clause violations in other cases.
Mr. Wilson, I’m a little surprised, too. It may be that people just don’t know about these legislative chapels. For example, I didn’t know such things existed, and I teach law and religion. I came upon the Indiana Chapel by accident. Regarding the presence of the Bibles, they seem to me less obtrusive and integral to the space than a wall cross would be, and therefore less suggestive of an endorsement. Non-Christians who wish to use the chapel and object to the presence of the Bibles could quickly remove or cover them — though I suppose a cross could be quickly removed, too, if it weren’t too large. To me, the presence of the Bibles and hymnal suggest that the majority of legislators who use the chapel happen to be Christians, not that the state is endorsing Christianity as such. But I’m sure others would differ.