A panel of Maryland senators began a formal review yesterday of the chamber's policy of opening daily sessions with a prayer, an evaluation prompted by repeated Christian invocations that offended some Jewish lawmakers.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in a letter that he was creating the Special Commission on Legislative Prayer "to promote a more comprehensive policy and a greater comfort level on this issue for the entire membership, while at the same time not intending to censor any individual."
Sessions of the Senate have long begun with a prayer that is delivered after members note their presence through a quorum call, making the prayer part of official proceedings. But during this year's 90-day session, several clergy and other guests invoked the name of Jesus, which Jewish senators in particular said was not appropriate.
Yesterday, commission members took their first try at balancing the tradition and spirituality of a daily prayer and the free-speech rights of clergy members, against the sensibilities of a diverse legislature representing constituents of myriad faiths.
Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the panel, said he did not expect large-scale changes to Senate policy after the commission's next and final meeting.
"I feel strongly that we all need prayer," Currie said. "The [Senate] president wants prayer to encompass us. That is the purpose of prayer - to pull us together and hold us together. It's the glue."
But when and where the prayer should take place, and whether it should be subject to review before it is delivered, are topics for debate.
Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican and member of the review panel, said he received a letter recently from a lawyer objecting to the Senate's preventing the Rev. David N. Hughes of the Trinity and Evangelical Church of Adamstown from addressing the Senate this year. Hughes was blocked from appearing because he wanted to end his prayer "in Jesus' name."
"I believe that people shouldn't be censored," Haines said, adding that he favors continuing the tradition of prayer, but is willing to hold it before the quorum call, so that senators need not participate.
Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat who was one of the most outspoken critics of Christian prayer, said Haines' idea offered only a partial solution.
"A member shouldn't feel excluded because of the content of the prayer," she said. "What I'm leaning toward is a legislative prayer breakfast that is not part of the formal process. That is part of the more appropriate way to maintain prayer in the legislature."
In the House of Delegates, prayers are given only by members - not invited clergy - and are scheduled before the quorum call. Delegates are told to refrain from mentioning specific religious figures.
Senators reviewed a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Marsh vs. Chambers, that concluded that legislative prayer was "deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country."