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


The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tom Downing/WITF)

(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/AP)

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.

Borowicz’s prayer has polarized people and groups on all sides.

“This is Exhibit A for why invocations at public events are unwise,” said Reginald T. Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “Once you open that door, there is no way to define what is “appropriate” prayer to open a government proceeding and it is inevitable that some will use it as a platform for their own purposes.”

Shuford evoked a 1984 opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who famously said that such invocations “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Philadelphia, delivered the opening prayer.

Hank Butler, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, commended the House leadership for taking swift action to address the issue.

“It’s a non denominational speech,” Butler said. “It’s always been a nondenominational welcoming start to the sessions…to be more embracing of all religions and cultures in our society. I think everyone was surprised by the prayer but as the Leader and speakers have said, there needs to be more discussion on prayers.”

Others applauded the Clinton County Republican.

“I thought she was right on,” said Diane Gramley of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania. “I applaud her for having the courage to ask forgiveness for the many missteps that this nation has taken. It was refreshing to hear a politician give such a heartfelt prayer. I don’t believe her intention was to demean or divide. It was a heartfelt prayer seeking God’s guidance and forgiveness.”

Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, said the individuals offering the opening prayers “should be free to pray as their faith and conscience dictates.”

He said he would hope their words would not be censored.

“A Christian praying out loud to Jesus and speaking his name should not be a surprise to anyone, nor viewed as offensive,” Geer said. “From the days of William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, prayer is at the centerpiece of Pennsylvania’s founding and flourishing, and we must never abandon it.”

Across the country, only a handful of states, among them Colorado, Hawaii and Massachusetts have done away with opening prayers in one or both chambers of their state assemblies. Invocations in the Connecticut Senate are delivered by staff members and often do not contain atheist messages.

It’s an idea Rabbi Peter Kessler of Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg would support.

“I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of a religious invocation prior to a session at any governmental agency,” he said. “I have given invocations at such meetings in the past, but only because I felt the need to invoke a religion other than Christianity.

“I am very uncomfortable hearing ‘in Jesus’ name’ in the state House or in Congress, so I have invoked God from an interfaith perspective, rather than hearing a concept more suited to a particular faith. If I had my way, however, the law that separates church and state would be followed, and the idea of any invocation in such instances would cease.”

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