By Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Bob Von Sternberg
As protesters chanted against an anti-gay marriage amendment outside the House chamber Friday morning, controversial pastor Bradlee Dean took to the House rostrum to give the prayer for the day.
According to those present, Dean, who has suggested he approves of the death penalty for gay people on a radio show, was accusatory toward Democrats and insulting to people who do not believe in Jesus.
"I know this is a non-denominational prayer in this Chamber and it’s not about the Baptists and it’s not about the Catholics alone or the Lutherans or the Wesleyans. Or the Presbyterians the evangelicals or any other denomination but rather the head of the denomination and his name is Jesus. As every President up until 2008 has acknowledged. And we pray it. In Jesus’ name," he said.
The House session broke down as leaders huddled with their staff members to discuss what to do. Both his words and his background ignited the firestorm.
The session quickly ended and Republicans huddled in a private caucus meeting for more than an hour.
Immediately after the House came back to order, DFL Rep. Terry Morrow took to the floor to say the hope of peace in the daily prayer had been "crushed by a single person's words."
He said the House had been fragmented and needed to be repaired.
"This can't happen again," Morrow said.
Democrats in the chamber expressed shock and said they were appalled. Some Republicans joined in the condemnation. Majority Leader Matt Dean said the prayer was inappropriate. House Speaker Kurt Zellers put it more bluntly, calling it a mistake.
When the House reconvened, Zellers stepped down from the speaker's chair and addressed his fellow House members. He called Dean "a man I personally denounce." Allowing him to deliver the prayer was wrong, "and for that I apologize to each and every one of you." He said he agreed with Morrow's criticism.
"I can only ask you for your forgiveness ... That type of person will never, ever be allowed on the House floor again," Zellers said.
Earlier, Zellers issued a more expansive written statement: "I respectfully apologize to all members in the Minnesota House of Representatives and all citizens of this state for today’s morning prayer. As Speaker of the House, I take responsibility for this mistake. I am offended at the presence of Bradlee Dean on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives. I denounce him, his actions and his words. He does not represent my values or the values of this state."
In an interview, Dean said he was surprised his words started a firestorm.
"I said a prayer. If a prayer starts a firestorm, so be it," he said. He said he was welcomed onto the House floor and departed with good feelings. "How it went from that to this, I'm not sure."
Dean said he had watched his prayer himself three times and it should have been clear he had no intent to ostracize anybody.
He said it wasn't right to call him "anti-gay" and said the idea that he had approved of the death penalty for gays had been debunked.
But also spoke admiringly of the time when homosexuality was illegal.
"I'm simply fighting for our posterity. I'm simply fighting for our next generation and the way to do that is to go back to who we are rather than what we are becoming...We don't enforce those laws anymore and we wonder why we are going backwards," he said. "If you were to ask me my position as far as enforcing the laws of sodomy in the state of Minnesota, I would say absolutely yes. Yeah. Yeah."
Asked about Zellers' apology for allowing him to speak, Dean said: "I apologize for him being in the position he is in if he doesn't understand what I said."
Zellers had originally hit the reset button on the session and invited the regular House chaplain to say a second prayer. The House also re-did the daily Pledge of Allegiance and roll call.
House officials said that the guest chaplains are suggested by members and are advised to be non-denominational and inclusionary.
Rep. Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer, arranged the guest pastor's visit, but said he was unaware of Dean's view of homosexuality, calling it "radical thinking – that kind of thinking, I think back to Nazi Germany… I don’t agree with that.”
Saying he should have done a better job of "screening" Dean, he explained his rationale for inviting the pastor:
I met him about six months ago and what I saw was a good presentation about bringing the Constitution back into the schools. A few months after that one of his people called and said we’d like to have Bradley come on and do the prayer in the morning … And I said I’m not really sure how we get that scheduled up here, so call the clerk’s office. My input was, I’d seen his presentation, he does a good job of talking to students, talking about the Constitution, talking about we need to understand how our country was formed, how important it was to know about the Founding Fathers …Little did I know there’s another side of him, which, by the way, I just learned today… I didn’t realize he was that controversial a figure. I’ve never listened to him on the radio.
As for what effect the controversy could have on a pending vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota, Leidiger said he hopes "this doesn’t derail at all the agenda. It’s the leadership’s decision really to see if [the vote on the amendment] needs to be rescheduled.”
Whereas previously it was a foregone conclusion that the marriage amendment, defining marriage as only the union of one man and one woman, would get a House vote this year, now that is less clear. Zellers Friday said he didn't know if the measure would get approval in the final three days of this years regular session. He noted it could get a vote next year and the constitutional question would still appear on the 2012 ballot.
Before Zellers apologized, two of the Legislature's openly gay members, Rep. Karen Clark and Sen. Scott Dibble, both of Minneapolis, issued a statement denouncing Dean's prayer. Clark called him "a hateful person" and said his presence in the chamber was "reprehensible."
The Minnesota Catholic Conference also denounced Dean, saying he "disrespectfully turned the prayer into a polemic and his words divided the chamber rather than brought people together.” He "does not speak for those supporting a marriage amendment in Minnesota," the pro-amendment league stated.