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How to define the word “civic” appears to be one of the key issues confronting a federal appeals court in Chicago, and its resolution may influence whether the jurists allow a group of Oak Park residents to use a room in the village hall for their planned National Day of Prayer activities. On Sept. 25, a three-member panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from event organizers who want to overturn an earlier U.S. District court decision barring them from using the taxpayer-funded facility because their activities did not fall within the village’s guidelines to promote civic issues and discussion. Martin DeBoer, et al. v. Village of Oak Park, et al., Nos. 99-4153 and 99-4226. The word “civic” is “susceptible to reasonable clear interpretation,” said Gregory S. Baylor, who represented the organizers. “What’s not fair is for (the village) to come up with an esoteric application of that definition.” In February 1999, District Court Chief Judge Marvin Aspen had initially ruled the National Day of Prayer organizers be allowed to use the suburb’s village hall because their activities were done within a civic context — offering prayers for national, state and local leaders — and were not a religious service. But, the west suburban village returned before Aspen with a motion to reconsider his earlier decision. Attached to the motion was a transcript of the 1999 National Day of Prayer event showing that, along with prayers for government leaders, there were also readings from the New Testament, hymn singing, and prayers focusing on the Christian church. In November 1999, Aspen reversed himself on allowing the residents to use the village hall. In doing so, the jurist went so far as saying that prayer services addressing civic issues could not be classified as civic in content. DeBoer, et al. v. Village of Oak Part, et al., No. 98C2437. Both Baylor, an attorney with the Center for Law and Religious Freedom in Annandale, Va., and John Murphey, the attorney representing Oak Park, didn’t get far into their arguments before one of the three judges on the panel raised a question dealing with just where civic discussion from a religious perspective ended and a religious service began. “A Catholic mass said for the souls of the village board and a prayer to God to influence the actions of the board, would that fall under the conditions of the village’s use (policy)?” Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner asked of Murphey. “No,” responded Murphey of Rosenthal, Murphey, Coblentz & Janega in Chicago. “A religious prayer service is an inherently un-civic action.” Both attorneys seemed to be equally questioned by Rovner and Judge Kenneth F. Ripple, while Judge John L. Coffey remained mainly silent, his arms crossed across his chest as he listened to the responses the lawyers gave to his colleagues’ questions. During the argument by Baylor, Ripple commented that during a religious service mention may be made of civic leaders, but that a “single mention of that does not make it a civic event.” “I agree,” Baylor responded. “But that’s not why the village kept us out. They said, ‘You are going to pray and we won’t allow it.’ That’s what they did.” Borrowing a phrase from Aspen’s November 1999 decision, Rovner asked Baylor if there was “too fine a line to draw” between civic discussions and religious services. “I disagree there is a line,” Baylor said. “They are two circles that intersect. There are some things that are civic that are [also] religious and some things that are civic that are not religious. “The problem with the village’s approach,” he continued, “is they assume these two categories are mutually exclusive.” The National Day of Prayer participants had been allowed to use the Oak Park village hall for their one-day event from 1993 to 1995. They were denied use starting in 1996 after the village passed the guidelines on use of rooms at the building. In his February 1999 decision, Aspen had found that two of the guidelines used by the village were unconstitutional because they were either overbroad or permitted too much discretion to village officials to deny use of a room based on viewpoint. He upheld that ruling in his November decision. The village filed a counter-appeal to have the appeals court overturn that ruling, with Murphey giving, on Tuesday, a brief argument in support of the village’s position.

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