The line between prayer and politics continued to blur in the House of Delegates yesterday as a Baltimore minister became the second clergyman in a week to offend many listeners with references to abortion and to Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Robert T. Woodworth ended his opening prayer with a reference to Jesus, despite being informed minutes before that the practice is regarded as offensive by non-Christian members.
"I'm a minister of the Gospel. I can't pray in the name of Moses," Woodworth said afterward.
Woodworth also raised hackles among some delegates who favor abortion rights by calling on God to help lawmakers remember to enact only laws that protect the "right to life" of "all people from conception."
The minister's prayer touched a nerve for many delegates because it came just five days after the Rev. John Dekker, pastor of Cub Hill Bible Presbyterian Church, delivered a sermon about morality in higher office that many interpreted as an attack on President Clinton.
Dekker also made reference to abortion and closed by invoking the name of Jesus. Both ministers were invited by the delegation from the 8th District in Baltimore County -- Republicans James F. Ports and Alfred Redmer Jr. and Democrat Katherine Klausmeier.
The new prayer incident came as House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. circulated a letter among delegates underscoring the House's existing guidelines for the opening prayer and urging them to invite guest chaplains who lead "inclusive, nonsectarian" prayers.
"Last week we were led in prayer by someone whose words seemed to inflame and divide us instead of inspiring us to work for the good of the whole," Taylor wrote. "While it becomes us to show tolerance of those whose words may offend us, it is also important that we retain and refine standards for the traditions that link us as colleagues in a common cause."
It was not clear whether Woodworth was aware of the letter, but before he spoke it was apparent that Taylor had not put the issue to rest.
Before yesterday morning's session, the House lounge was the scene of a heated -- and not particularly friendly -- debate between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of prayer.
Del. Robert L. Frank, a Baltimore County Democrat who is Jewish, told Woodworth and Ports that "it's offensive" when guest clergy ignore the House leadership's request that prayers be nonsectarian and nonpolitical.
But Ports replied that critics of the prayers were showing religious intolerance. "You want us to be sensitive to you, but you don't want to be sensitive to us," he told Frank.
In an interview Tuesday, Ports said he disagrees with the speaker's guidelines for prayer and believes clergymen should be free to pray however they want. He said he routinely provides the guidelines to those he invites but does not try to influence their prayers.
Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, said she was concerned that some Republicans might be using the prayer controversy for political purposes. "It wouldn't surprise me if it was a strategy to try to divide the Democrats," she said.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House minority whip, said the Republican Caucus is not backing efforts to challenge the prayer guidelines. The Howard County Republican said he agrees with the Democratic speaker's rules and does not see prayer as a political issue.
"We shouldn't suggest that Republicans have a corner on religiosity," he said.
Pub Date: 2/19/98