(RNS) At last count, the special guests invited to tonight’s State of the Union address included two Catholic nuns, a Pentecostal clerk who was jailed for refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples, the gay man whose Supreme Court case legalized gay marriage, a Syrian refugee and a Mexican immigrant.
If Capitol Hill were a bar, this might sound like the start of a joke.
Instead it’s evidence of the role that religion and moral values are playing in the nation’s politics as we head into the heart of the presidential campaign.
Consider the guest list for President Obama’s final SOTU speech:
- Two members of the Little Sisters of the Poor will be hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who wants to highlight religious opposition to the contraception mandate in Obamacare. The order runs a chain of nursing homes and say allowing such coverage for their employees forces them to compromise their religious beliefs.
- Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed briefly last year for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, will be in attendance with her lawyer; the last time Davis was in Washington it was for a secret meeting with Pope Francis that blew up into a controversy when the Vatican discovered the pontiff had been set up.
- Jim Obergefell, an Ohio real estate agent who was the lead plaintiff on the Supreme Court case last June that gave gay couples across the country the right to marry, will be a guest of the president.
- Obama has also invited Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee and scientist who fled that country’s civil war, and settled with four of his children in Michigan last month; his presence is a visual rejoinder to the growing calls to bar refugees from Syria or to set up religious restrictions for entry. Hamo’s family background is Kurdish, according to the Detroit Free Press.
- More than 20 Democrats have invited Muslims as guests tonight to push back against the growing rhetoric and attacks on U.S. Muslims. One of them will be a Connecticut doctor whose mosque was shot at the night of the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks.
- Mexican-born Oscar Vazquez will be another guest of the president and will highlight the immigration reform issue that has galvanized and divided religious groups: Vazquez was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, returned to his home country and re-entered the country legally, and then joined the Army and served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
And that’s not to mention the empty chair that the president has reserved in his box to symbolize the victims of gun violence.
That’s an issue that has for years bedeviled Obama and one he is trying to take action on before he leaves office. In the wake of the recent spate of mass shootings the issue has also begun to engage, and divide, many religious groups
Then again, not every moral issue facing the nation will be represented the way everyone would like:
Cruz, a leading GOP presidential contender and a senator from Texas, will have an empty seat of his own as he announced that he will not attend the State of Union address.
(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)