Legislators’ Prayers Are Common but Controversial

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

TRENTON, N.J. _ “Let us pray. Mother and Father of us all, we give thanks for the women who have been part of our life’s journey …”

Spoken aloud at a public high school graduation, these words probably would trigger a lawsuit. But in the New Jersey Legislature, where they were said recently, it’s just a matter of getting things started.

The state’s tradition of inviting a member of the clergy to deliver an opening prayer dates to 1846. And while it may be a comfort to many, the practice has remained controversial.

On roughly three days out of 10, legislators in Trenton hear a prayer offered in the name of Jesus Christ. In Indiana, such an invocation could get someone jailed for contempt of a federal court order.

Last December, hours after a state Senate committee approved a bill allowing gay couples to form civil unions, the visiting clergyman intoned: “We curse the spirit that would come to bring about same-sex marriage.”

Senate leaders say he won’t be back.

Despite ongoing disputes about what opening prayers should contain, the practice is virtually universal. In fact, according to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the Nebraska Legislature’s hiring of a chaplain to offer invocations, the practice “has become part of the fabric of our society.”

Of 85 legislative bodies that responded to a 2002 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, only the Massachusetts Senate did not open each session day with prayer, reserving it for special occasions.

Similar to 78 other legislative chambers, the New Jersey Senate and Assembly use visiting clergy members, rotating among different religions, to present invocations. The prayers carry a $100 stipend.

“We’ve had all denominations,” said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, a Republican, who suggested that if any group can use divine guidance, it’s New Jersey lawmakers.

“We always need a prayer,” he said. “I don’t think we want to stop the practice; I certainly don’t. I think it’s meaningful, specifically to certain people here.”

Not everyone agrees.

“For most people, prayers are sacred acts that belong to faith communities, individuals and their families, and they shouldn’t be politicized by making them part of a government activity,” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

It’s a debate that has been going on in New Jersey for 161 years.

“The first time a member of the clergy in either house in New Jersey commenced a session with prayer was on Jan. 16, 1846,” said Peter Mazzei, manager of the Office of Legislative Services’ library, who checked records dating to 1776.

Mazzei said the Assembly voted 45-4 on Jan. 15, 1846, to open sessions with prayer. The first invocation was given the following day by the Rev. Samuel Starr of St. Michael’s Church in Trenton. Three days later, the Senate voted 11-3 that “it becomes Christians in all circumstances to recognise their obligations to and dependence upon God.”

A month later, Assemblyman Clayton Lippincott, a Quaker, declared legislative prayer was “fraught with dangerous consequences to the religious liberties of the people” and should be rescinded. His motion was killed by tabling it, 35-15, Mazzei said.

And so it continues _ with some ground rules.

Invocation etiquette strangely requires that a prayer not directly address two things: religion and politics.

The Rev. Vincent Fields, who leads a nondenominational church in Absecon, learned what happens when you mix politics with prayer after he spoke against gay marriage during his remarks. He later said he had not planned on doing it but “the Holy Spirit took over.”

For most visiting clergy, however, the bigger challenge is giving a prayer that is not specific to a particular religion.

The National Conference for Community and Justice, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews, advises clerics giving invocations at civic events to use “universal, inclusive terms for deity” such as “almighty God” or “our maker.”

Some federal courts have ruled the Constitution requires public invocations be nonsectarian. In 2004, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled that the town of Great Falls, S.C., had unconstitutionally used its prayers to advance Christianity and ordered it to stop.

In 2005, a federal district court judge found prayers offered in the Indiana House of Representatives “consistently advance the beliefs that define the Christian religion.” The judge ruled that if the speaker of the House allowed “any form of legislative prayer” to continue, he must advise those offering it to “refrain from using Christ’s name or title or any other denominational appeal.”

The ruling is in the federal appeals court in Chicago, which refused to lift the injunction until it issues its decision.

Assemblyman Alfred E. Steele, a Democrat and pastor of Seminary Baptist Church in Paterson, who has delivered invocations for the Legislature, finds the Indiana ruling “troubling.”

“There’s no freedom of speech in prayer? To me, we’re saying there’s a separation of church and state, but the government can now tell clergy how to pray. I don’t think that’s what this nation was founded on,” Steele said.

Assemblyman Neil Cohen, a Democrat and a Jew, said he “vividly” remembers feeling uncomfortable during school prayer as a child.

“I felt different,” he said. “There should be some instructions that (legislative prayer) be kept religious-neutral, and on many occasions, it has not been.”

Although explicitly Christian references are heard at the Statehouse, they are rarer than in Indiana, where nearly two-thirds of the House prayers in the 2005 legislative session mentioned Jesus or Christ.

Of two dozen invocations given in the New Jersey Senate this term, seven mentioned Jesus. One also invoked “the God of Abraham” and “the God of Mohammed.” At a recent Senate session, the Rev. Kevin McGuinness of Cornerstone Bible Church concluded his invocation “for the sake of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

McGuinness, who leads an independent Baptist church in River Vale, said a Christian minister praying in the name of Jesus is no different from a rabbi wearing a yarmulke or an imam wearing a prayer shawl.

“My point is not to offend anyone. My point is simply: That’s how I approach God,” McGuinness said. “If they told me I couldn’t use the name of Jesus Christ, I’d probably say I’m not really praying, so what’s my point in coming?”

The 2002 survey found 37 legislative chambers had guidelines for invocations and three required clergy to submit their prayers for review.

“I think if you ordered them what to say, they wouldn’t do it,” said Ellen Davenport, who as secretary of the New Jersey Senate coordinates the chamber’s scheduling of visiting clergy. “The only thing I ever say to them in the way of guidance is we have many different faiths _ and nonfaiths _ and I don’t want anyone uncomfortable.”

(Robert Schwaneberg writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)


Editors: To obtain photos of the New Jersey Legislature, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

See related sidebar, RNS-PRAY-SIDEBAR, for a chronology of statehouse prayer.

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