Christian prayers spark debate in Senate

Ecumenical approach, other changes suggested

January 18, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

By the third day that a prayer in the state Senate ended in the name of Jesus, some lawmakers had heard enough.

Three of the five opening prayers in the Senate this week ended with a reference to Jesus Christ, which some members of the assembly believed to be inappropriate.

"On this question of religion, I think it's important to recognize and to remember that we are an ecumenical body and that all of our members at any time coming to the podium should represent their views and represent the views of all the others in this chamber and in the rest of the great state of Maryland," said Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, a Montgomery County Democrat who is Jewish.

Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat who also is Jewish, said she wants to have the prayer held before the Senate is called to order or before attendance is taken, so the legislators can choose whether to attend.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he would consider her proposal to call the prayer before attendance. If he doesn't implement it, though, Grosfeld, an attorney, doesn't plan to drop the matter. She is investigating how to change the rule.

"I'm not sure that's constitutional," she said. "I'm not so sure a member can be required to be present for a religious prayer."

Similar debates have arisen in both chambers of the General Assembly in the past and separation of church and state continues to be the source of heated disputes throughout the nation.

The National Conference of State Legislatures and such interfaith organizations as the National Conference for Community and Justice urge lawmakers and clergy to use ecumenical approaches to prayers before the general public.

"I don't think it serves any religion to put people in the position of feeling like they are excluded," said Jim Howe, executive director of the community and justice organization's Miami office, which often fields calls on such issues before legislatures. The organization was formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews, but changed its name to include all faiths.

Howe said the organization suggests more neutral phrases in public places, such as "hear our prayer," "may goodness flourish," or simply "amen," in closing.

The prayers at issue in the Maryland Senate included one given by Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican, who gave the invocation for the opening of Wednesday's session just before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was sworn into office. His was the second this week to invoke the name of Jesus.

"Lord bind us together in the spirit of unity and fellowship ... in Jesus' name I pray, amen," Haines said.

The next day, a visiting minister from Laurel closed his prayer by saying, "We pray this in the name of Jesus, amen."

Haines said he did not intend to offend or to impose his beliefs on anyone else. As a Christian, Haines said, he tries to follow what the Bible says about prayer, including ending his petitions to God in Jesus' name.

"When I end a prayer in public, the way I end it, I say, `In Jesus' name I pray, amen," Haines said. "I don't say in Jesus' name we pray."

Grosfeld said the Senate should adopt the same policy the House has and hold prayer before the roll call when senators have to register their attendance so that people have a choice.

"There are numerous faiths represented in the General Assembly," Grosfeld said. "And in recognition of that, and out of respect for that, the prayers that are said in the chambers should be as neutral in terms of their reference to a particular god as they can be."

Brenda Erickson, senior research analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said about half of the nation's legislatures hold prayer before a roll call and half after everyone has registered their attendance. She said virtually all of the legislatures hold a prayer before their sessions.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the Senate's majority leader, said his colleagues need to respect each others' faiths, but he hopes to maintain the tradition of prayer while all members are present.

"We've established the tradition of ecumenical prayer, and that's what I support," said McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and a Southern Baptist.

Sun staff writer Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

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