On a historic day, the Pa. House had a chance to be pluralistic and welcoming. It totally whiffed | Tuesday Morning Coffee

March 26, 2019 7:13 am

Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, delivers a prayer on the floor of the Pa. state House on 3/25/2019 (Screen Capture).

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

If there’s one thing that’s true about the Pennsylvania General Assembly, it’s that the 253-member body (203 in the House, 50 in the Senate) rarely loses its capacity to surprise.

With that many people in one place, swimming through a stew of differing beliefs, contrasting priorities, clashing egos, wildly divergent and explicitly partisan agendas, there’s always an endless potential for drama.

Still, even by those admittedly generous standards, the not-quite two minutes that freshman state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz spent on the Speaker’s Rostrum on Monday afternoon to deliver the House’s daily invocation, stands out as one of the more dramatic and polarizing moments in recent memory.

Worse, it came just as the House was to swear in its first Muslim woman member, Movita Johnson-Harrell, of Philadelphia. It was a landmark moment, a moment to reach out and deliver an inclusive, welcoming benediction.

Which is exactly what didn’t happen.

Instead, Borowicz, R-Clinton, delivered a rambling and *very* evangelical prayer that invoked “Jesus” 13 times, “God” six times, and “Lord” four times,” as The Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso and Elizabeth Hardison report.

That tally came courtesy of Raging Chicken Press writer Sean Kitchen, who first noted it on Twitter. Borowicz also expressed thanks to God that President Donald Trump “stands besides Israel.”

“Thank you that, Jesus, we’re blessed because we stand by Israel and we ask for the peace of Jerusalem, as your word says, God,” Borowicz, her voice rising with emotion, says at about the 1:29 mark of a YouTube video that hit social media seemingly moments after she was done speaking.

It was hard not to take it as anything other than a shot over Harrell-Johnson’s bow. The Philadelphia Democrat saw it that way, describing it as blatant “Islamophobia.”

Borowicz’s invocation, she said in a statement texted to the Capital-Star was “highly offensive to me, my guests and other members of the House.”

“It blatantly represented the Islamophobia that exists among some leaders — leaders that are supposed to represent the people,” she continued. “I came to the Capitol to help build bipartisanship and collaborations regardless of race or religion to enhance the quality of life for everyone in the Commonwealth.”

Her Democratic colleagues quickly weighed in on her behalf.

In a lengthy statement, House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, accused Borowicz of “weaponiz[ing] religion in what could be considered a gross attempt to intimidate, demean and degrade a Muslim state representative in the presence of her family, friends and guests.”

“On a day that should be celebrated across Pennsylvania as we see the first Muslim woman sworn into office, we instead started off with a rambling, at times incoherent prayer that consisted of weaponizing the name of Jesus while dipping into partisan rhetoric on President Donald Trump.”

Borowicz, meanwhile, was completely unapologetic, telling the PLS Reporter’s Andrew Bahl, “That’s how I pray every day,” and saying “I don’t apologize ever for praying.”

It’s worth noting that on Monday, after that display of piety, Borowicz hit a House Health Committee meeting, where majority Republicans voted to strip cash assistance from adults with disabilities and those fighting addiction.

It was exactly the wrong pose to strike. But it’s one that’s unsurprising, given Borowicz’s strident conservatism. A pastor’s wife and former fourth-grade teacher, she told her hometown paper on Swearing-In Day in January that “there is still too much political correctness and unaccountable government intrusion infiltrating our daily lives.”

As Caruso and Hardison report, the House traditionally opens up each session with prayer. After a federal judge ruled last year that agnostics, atheists, humanists, and other non-believers should be able to deliver invocations, the House stopped inviting guest chaplains to deliver prayers, relying instead on lawmakers.The invocations tend to be ecumenical and welcoming.

Borowicz was right about one thing: She shouldn’t change the way she prays. That’s a deeply personal matter between her and whatever deity that happens to be listening. But she wasn’t in church. And she wasn’t exclusively among her own religious fellow travelers.

She was in a pluralistic body whose members include Christians, Muslims and Jews from Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood who know a thing or two about religion literally getting weaponized. And she should have remembered that.

But she either did not or she chose not to do so for a very specific reason — as one scholar suggested to Hardison and Caruso.

The prayer was “an attempt to reaffirm the idea that Pennsylvania is a Christian, white commonwealth and someone like Rep. Johnson is less welcome,” Erik Love, a Dickinson College professor who studies Islamophobia, told Caruso and Hardison.

“It doesn’t explicitly say [Pennsylvania] is a Christian commonwealth, but the implication is quite clear,” Love added. “[Johnson-Harrell] is correct to say it was divisive and offensive.”

As outrage spread on social media, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, called on members to remember to “deliver an interfaith prayer” when speaking.

“As you are preparing your thoughts, we’d ask that you craft a prayer that is respectful of all religious belief,” Turzai said. By then, of course, it was far too late.

Borowicz’s words got us to thinking about William Penn, who founded his colony in the New World with the intent of it becoming a beacon of religious freedom and tolerance.

In the Charter of Privileges establishing his new colony, Penn wrote that “no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories … shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, not be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.”

In that context, Borowicz’s prayer wasn’t just bad manners. It was an act of religious intolerance that directly contravenes the Commonwealth’s founding principles. That’s no small thing.

Six months after Tree of Life, and little more than a week after the carnage in Christchurch, we owe each other better than that.

Our Stuff.
The trial of former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld is over. But the debate in Harrisburg over police reform is just beginning, Sarah Anne Hughes reports.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Conor Lamb, Matt Cartwright and Susan Wild are among the targets of a $55 million Republican digital advertising blitz.
A state House committee has voted to eliminate cash assistance to disabled adults and those fighting addictionHughes reports.
Under a state Senate proposal, veterans would be allowed to use their military experience to get a break on professional licenses, Hardison reports.

On the Opinion side of the house, a University of Pittsburgh scholar looks at Major League Baseball’s pipeline to the Dominican Republic. And Senate State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, argues the case for additional reform at the Pa. Civil Service Commission.

Tobacco is now banned in Pennsylvania’s prisons. But nature abhors a vacuum. The Inquirer looks at the ‘informal currencies,” like snack food and ramen, that have taken their place.
LG John Fetterman took his Up in Smoke Tour to Perry County on MondayPennLivetagged along.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from an alleged run-in with the local gendarmerie in Detroit, The Post-Gazette reports.

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:

This is the most Pennsylvania political story of the day: A Westmoreland County commissioner has refused to comment on a $1,900 campaign contribution from, and we’re quoting here, “a deceased family friend implicated in a human trafficking and prostitution ring at area massage parlors.” The Tribune-Review has the story.

What Happens on Twitter:

BillyPenn reports that the Philly Sheriff’s Office, which operates with zero oversight, has doubled in size. Because, what could possibly go wrong?
America’s first, and only, black beer festival will return to Pittsburgh, The Incline reports.
The Pa. Dept. of Education has settled a discrimination case over alternative education, The Morning Call reports. runs down the Medicaid changes that have been okayed by the Trump White House.
 explains how the U.S. Supreme Court is examining new limits on gerrymandering.

What Goes On.
Here’s how you can tell it’s a session day. The slate of pre-packaged press events is downright packed.
The House gavels in at 11 a.m, the Senate at 1 p.m. Meanwhile …
9 a.m., Media Center: Reps. Daryl Metcalfe and Garth Everett talk about ‘election security,” which probably means someone gets disenfranchised.
9:30 a.m., 418 Main Capitol: A joint House and Senate Democratic Policy Committee on affordable college.
9:30 a.m., LG’s Porch: Rep. Jared Solomon on a bill allowing for recall elections.
10 a.m, Media Center: Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Andrew Lewis on the ‘Fighting Chance Act,’ for reformed offenders reentering the workforce.
10 a.m., Media Center: Reps. Steve Kinsey and Greg Rothman on electric scooters. That’s a bill, though the idea of them actually ON electric scooters is hilarious. But you will have a chance to ride one, which is cool.
10 a.m., LG’s porch: Rep. Karen Boback on lead testing in schools.
11 a.m., Main Rotunda: Event calling for allowing doctors to prescribe more opioids. Yes, more. Chief organizer, El Chapo, will appear via FaceTime, we presume.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
7:30 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Sen. John DiSanto
7:30 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Martin Causer
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Sen. Anthony Williams
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Michael Schlossberg
8:15 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Austin Davis
8:30 a.m.: Breakfast for Sen. Christine Tartaglione
11:30 a.m.: Luncheon for Sen. Kim Ward
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Barry Jozwiak
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Kevin J. Boyle
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Dave Delloso
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out a truly repulsive $18,000 today.

Heavy Rotation.
Heads of a certain age exploded Monday with the news that early-Aughts English rock act Bloc Party will be touring this fall and performing their classic record “Silent Alarm” in its entirety. We were among them. So here’s a bit of Bloc Party for your Tuesday morning. It’s “Helicopter.”

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Pittsburgh got past the Rangers 5-2 on Monday night. The win was the Pens’ third straight.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.