Legislative prayer stirs church-state issues

By: - January 5, 2006 12:00 am

Indiana lawmakers are testing the line between invoking divine guidance on their deliberations and breaching the constitutional wall between church and state.
In the process, they are discovering, as legislators around the country before them have, that the simple ceremony of opening legislative sessions with prayers can be tricky.
The Indiana House took the unusual step Wednesday of convening an informal prayer session before official business began. One Democrat and one Republican offered prayers to a gathering that likely included at least four-fifths of the House members, according to Tony Samuel, a spokesman for House Speaker Brian C. Bosma (R).
Bosma started the practice, which will be used for the foreseeable future, because of a federal court ruling prohibiting prayers that invoke Jesus’ name during House business.
The Indiana House encourages preachers and others invited to deliver the invocation to “strive for an ecumenical prayer as our members, staff and constituents come from different faith backgrounds.” In practice, though, the majority of prayers during the 2005 legislative session were explicitly Christian, the federal court found.
The practice in other state legislatures varies widely. Senators in Vermont occasionally hear Buddhists play drums or Christian preachers play guitars during the chamber’s relatively rule-free “devotional exercises.”
Meanwhile Indiana’s eastern neighbor, Ohio, requires those who pray before the House to submit their remarks three days in advance. Those who don’t could lose the chance to address the House, and House officials warn that the prayers cannot be “denominational, sectarian or proselytizing.”
Maryland’s Senate recently started making visiting clergy agree they would not invoke the name of any divinity. Speakers still mention deities, but senators more often voice disapproval of the practice, said Sen. Sharon Grosfeld (D), who advocated the changes.
The U.S. Supreme Court allowed state legislatures to hire chaplains with tax money in 1983, clearing the way for prayer in legislative and municipal bodies.
Robert Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said recent challenges, such as the one in Indiana, focus on situations in which governmental prayer is allowed. Courts have not ruled consistently in those cases, he said.
Boston pointed to the stance of the 4 th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. The court recently let stand a lower court decision barring a South Carolina town from using sectarian prayers, but permitted a Virginia county to only allow “Judeo-Christian” prayers at its meetings.
Rev. Fred Holloman, an 80-year-old retired Baptist minister, has offered thousands of pre-session prayers during his 24 years as Kansas Senate chaplain. He strives to keep his prayers under a minute. And he always prays in the name of Christ.
At one point, he said, a Jewish lawmaker diplomatically asked him to consider giving a non-sectarian prayer. “I’m a Christian and I pray Christian prayers,” Holloman said. If asked to keep references to Christ out of his invocations, “I would resign,” Holloman said.
But Rev. David Hall, an Episcopal rector who frequently serves as guest chaplain for the Vermont Senate, said he tries to be as ecumenical as possible.
“In 16 years, I’ve never used Jesus’ name,” he said. “(My prayer is) a reminder that there is something more powerful than the legislature.”
Hall drew facetious objections to the wording of one of his opening prayers.
A few years ago, he said, he recited Psalm 8, which begins “O Lord our governor, how glorious is your name in all the world.”
The next day, he recalled, he got a letter from several senators. “Please,” the note said, “never refer to the Lord as ‘governor’ again.”
In Indiana, several clergy members said they would not be willing to offer prayer in the House if they could not mention Jesus.
U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton cited the frequent mentions of Christ when he ruled last November that prayers in Indiana’s lower chamber amounted to an illegal establishment of religion.
Of the 45 prayers reviewed in the case, 29 referred to Jesus, Hamilton said. The lawsuit challenging the offering of expressly Christian prayer at the start of Indiana legislative sessions was brought by a Methodist minister, two Roman Catholics and a Quaker.
In one instance that fueled the controversy, the guest chaplain said in his opening prayer: “We look forward to the day when all nations and all people of the earth will have the opportunity to hear and respond to messages of love of the Almighty God who has revealed Himself in the saving power of Jesus Christ.”
In another, the guest chaplain led legislators in singing “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” prompting several in the audience to clap along and others to walk out.
Bosma, the Indiana speaker, is appealing the federal court’s decision.

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