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Polarizing prayers in Pa. government: When do religious words cross the line?

“Opening prayers should be inclusive and respectful to the whole community. They should never be divisive."

  • Ivey DeJesus/PennLive
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Pa., Harrisburg, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Pa., Harrisburg, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

(Harrisburg) — On Monday when a Pennsylvania legislator offered up a prayer before the start of the House of Representative session, she unwittingly thrust the state back into the enduring debate of separation of state and church.

At issue was not the fact that freshman Rep. Stephanie Borowicz bowed her head and prayed, a chamber tradition dating hundreds of years.

Rather it was the content and seeming evangelically fervent tone of the Clinton County Republican’s prayer that fueled outrage.

“Opening prayers should be inclusive and respectful to the whole community,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “They should never be divisive. They should not proselytize. (Monday’s) prayer ran afoul of those guidelines. It was proselytizing, divisive and disrespectful to first female Muslim member in what should have been a very special day for her.”

Borowicz delivered her controversial prayer on the same day that the House swore in its first Muslim women member, Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Philadelphia Democrat.

In her prayer, which was captured on video and has been seen by thousands of viewers, Borowicz invoked “Jesus” 13 times, “God” six times, and “Lord” four times.

The argument fermenting over the prayer must arguably be framed against two legal benchmarks set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the 1983 Marsh v Chambers case, the high court ruled that the Nebraska Legislature did not violate the Constitution with its tradition of opening session with a prayer by a paid chaplain.

The high court ruled that it was OK for legislative bodies to have prayers at the start of their sessions, even noting the long-standing precedent set by Congress.

But over the years, the issue of prayer, and in particular, the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer or use of the name of Jesus in prayers at public forums engendered furious debate.

In 2014, SCOTUS once again ruled on the constitutionality of prayer at public meetings.

By a 5-4 majority that year, the justices ruled in Greece v Galloway that the Constitution not only allows for prayer at government meetings, but sectarian prayer as well.

At issue was whether the Christian prayers policy of the town of Greece, N.Y. violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from endorsing a religion. The lawsuit against the town, filed by a Jew and an atheist, charged that the prayers excluded many citizens. The “establishment” issue remained even after the town began to invite non-Christians to give invocations.

In writing for the majority then-Justice Anthony Kennedy opined that the town’s policy did not violate the Constitution, meaning elected officials could pray in the name of Jesus to open public meetings.

But the high court specified that prayers must not “threaten damnation, or preach conversion.”

Alan Garfield, a constitutional law expert at Widener University Delaware Law School is of the mind that Borowicz crossed the line with her prayer.

“The whole point of the Establishment Clause is to avoid religious divisiveness,” he said. “The framers knew Europe had been plagued for centuries by religious wars. What that legislator did only foments divisiveness, which is why it is getting the reaction is getting. It certainly does not seem to be in the spirit of why the court allowed prayer…They were thinking more of something that brings people together even if it has sectarian elements. She did the opposite.”

Matt Rourke / Associated Press


The debate over Monday’s House prayer comes at a time when that chamber’s prayer policy is already under scrutiny.

federal judge last year found that the House’s policy barring nontheists from delivering the opening prayer was unconstitutional. U.S. Middle District Judge Christopher Conner ordered the House to allow nontheists, who do not believe in a supreme deity, the opportunity to offer the opening invocation.

The House has appealed the ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In the interim,the chamber is relying on its own members to offer the opening prayer on session days.

“It’s equally disturbing that while House is fighting our clients’ efforts to be included, the House has allowed this proselytizing and divisive prayer to be delivered by a House member,” said Luchenitser, who is representing the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers in their lawsuit against the House.

Over the years, the groups have been repeatedly denied requests to deliver the opening invocation in the House.

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