Rules on Senate prayer cause dust up over religious freedom, exclusion

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  • April 13, 2013 - 9:39 AM

The Minnesota Senate on Wednesday voted down a move that would have allowed guest chaplains to explicitly mention Jesus  Christ or any other religious deity when they lead the Senate in prayer.

Currently, guest chaplains are asked that their brief prayers opening Senate sessions "be interfaith and not used to proselytize or advance one faith, or disparage any other faith or belief."

Legislative prayers, which both the House and Senate use to open their formal floor sessions, have long caused ripples in the Minnesota Legislature. In 2011, a prayer by firebrand preacher Bradlee Dean caused such an uproar the then-Speaker of the House apologized to the entire House. That same year, DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff, who is Jewish, ignighted a storm when she objected to a Senate prayer that repeatedly mentioned Jesus Christ. 

The result, said Sen. Dan Hall, of the current rules is that clergy feels restricted.

"Clergies are asked or suggested that they do not use their deities' name when giving the prayer. Some of the chaplains,  in wanting to be respectful, try to pray in some other way. And yet they feel their rights are being violated," said Hall, R-Burnsville and former CEO of Midwest Chaplains and founder of the Capitol Prayer Network.

"Others know their rights, use their deity's name and then are scolded afterwards by members of this body. I have personally seen this and experienced this," he said. Last year, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, objected when Hall read the first prayer delivered to Congress, which explicitly mentioned Jesus.

On Wednesday, Hall proposed allowing guest chaplains to lead the prayer in any manner, "that is  in accordance with the person's conscience and religious tradition."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the current language given to guest pastors is designed based on a U.S.. Supreme Court decision that restricted what legislative bodies can say in their prayers.

Senators also said that changing the rules on prayers could exclude senators who are not of the faith of the pastor.

"As a member of a minority religion, the question of prayer as expressed by an individual chaplain, that does so in a way that excludes others, those of the minority religions, is one that is inappropriate for the Senate floor," said DFL Sen. Dick Cohen, of St. Paul. Cohen, who is Jewish. It is not, he said, "a question or liberty or freedom of speech."

The Senate voted 36-25 not to adopt Hall's proposed change.


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