No Prayer National Days of Prayer on City Property

Lately, local observances of the National Day of Prayer have been coming under fire. From 1993 through 1995, residents of Oak Park, Illinois, met at the community-owned Village Hall to observe the annual National Day of Prayer. When the ACLU complained that the meetings on city property violated the Establishment Clause, the city adopted a new policy, which provided that any events in the Village Hall must benefit the public as a whole and must not be based on, promote, or espouse the philosophy, ideas, or beliefs of any particular group, entity, or organization. In February 1996, when Martin DeBoer applied to use the meeting space for a National Day of Prayer Meeting, the city invoked the new policy to deny the request, saying the activity would not benefit the public as a whole and was impermissibly "based on ... the philosophy, ideas, or beliefs" of a particular group. Again in 1997 the city denied the group access. Interestingly, during this period the city allowed the NAACP and the League of Women Voters to use the facility.

DeBoer filed a federal lawsuit against the village of Oak Park on April 20, 1998, alleging that its policy and denials of access violated his free speech rights by conferring on the city the authority to determine whether particular events would "benefit the public as a whole." In 1999 the district court granted DeBoer summary judgment, holding that the city could not prevent groups from using the facility to pray about civic matters and could require neither that events benefit the whole public nor that meetings not be based on the ideas of a particular group. The city appealed but was shot down in September 2001 by the Seventh Circuit Court, which held that the city violated DeBoer's free speech rights by denying him equal access and engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

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