Bench Memos

Seventh Circuit Nominee David Hamilton: “Allah” Yes, “Jesus” No

In 2005, in Hinrichs v. Bosma, federal district judge (and now Seventh Circuit nominee) David Hamilton enjoined the Speaker of Indiana’s House of Representatives from permitting “sectarian” prayers to be offered as part of that body’s official proceedings.  In so doing, Hamilton adopted one reasonable construction—though not the only one available—of the Supreme Court’s messy Establishment Clause rulings.  (In denying a stay of Hamilton’s order pending appeal, the majority on a divided Seventh Circuit panel indicated that its “initial reading of the case law” strongly inclined it to Hamilton’s reading, but the Seventh Circuit ultimately reversed Hamilton on standing grounds.)

One peculiar aspect of Hamilton’s ruling is how he drew the line between “sectarian” and “non-sectarian” prayers.  On the one hand, Hamilton made clear that prayers that “use Christ’s name or title” are sectarian.  On the other hand, he ruled (on a post-judgment motion) that it is presumptively not sectarian for a Muslim imam to offer a prayer to “Allah”:

The Speaker has also asked whether, for example, a Muslim imam may offer a prayer addressed to “Allah.” The Arabic word “Allah” is used for “God” in Arabic translations of Jewish and Christian scriptures. If those offering prayers in the Indiana House of Representatives choose to use the Arabic Allah, the Spanish Dios, the German Gott, the French Dieu, the Swedish Gud, the Greek Theos, the Hebrew Elohim, the Italian Dio, or any other language’s terms in addressing the God who is the focus of the non-sectarian prayers contemplated in Marsh v. Chambers, the court sees little risk that the choice of language would advance a particular religion or disparage others. If and when the prayer practices in the Indiana House of Representatives ever seem to be advancing Islam, an appropriate party can bring the problem to the attention of this or another court.

I find it difficult to make sense of Hamilton’s explanation.  The fact that “Allah” is Arabic for “God” would seem to have little or no bearing on what a Muslim imam praying in English means when he invokes “Allah” or what his audience would reasonably understand him to mean. 

More generally, it may only be Hamilton’s naivete, or a politically correct favoritism of Islam over Christianity in the public square, that causes him to “see[] little risk that the choice of [“Allah”] would advance a particular religion or disparage others.”  By e-mail, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch has called to my attention two notable examples in recent years (here and here) of “Islamic clerics offering highly sectarian prayers before unwitting infidel audiences.”  According to Spencer, “Muslim imams have made canny use of the apparent non-sectarianism of their prayers, aided by the universality or generic character of the word ‘Allah’ or ‘God,’ in order to engage in what were actually some rather aggressive statements of Islamic supremacism.”

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