‘There should definitely be censure’: Pa. freshman rep. calls for action after ‘Islamophobia’ in House prayer

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

(*This piece has been updated to include new information provided by House Speaker Mike Turzai’s Office)

The first Muslim woman to serve in the Pennsylvania General Assembly called for one of her colleagues to be censured Tuesday for delivering an inflammatory invocation that she viewed as an instance of blatant “Islamophobia.”

“There should definitely be censure because we need to be promoting inclusion, not division,” state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, told reporters of the invocation, laden with explicit Christian and political imagery, delivered by fellow freshman Rep. Stephanie Borowicz at the start of the House’s Monday voting session.

A censure typically involves a majority of lawmakers voting to approve a resolution to formally condemn an action. The action doesn’t necessarily carry any consequences for the lawmaker who is being censured, but represents a public reprimand of their conduct.

Borowicz, R-Clinton, invoked “Jesus” 13 times, “God” six times, and “Lord” four times in the rambling, nearly two-minute long prayer that is generally intended to ecumenical and welcoming. She also expressed thanks to God that President Donald Trump “stands besides Israel.”

Borowicz’s prayer, which came on the day that Johnson-Harrell, surrounded by family and friends, was due to be sworn into office, inflamed social media and inspired a rare rebuke from the House floor Monday by the chamber’s top Democrat, who said he could not recall such a divisive prayer in his three decades in the House.

“Never have we started out with a prayer that divides us,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody said to applause from Democratic members. “Prayer should never divide us. It should bring us together.”

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.

Speaking to Pennsylvania Legislative Services later in the day on Monday, Borowicz said “that’s how I pray everyday,” regarding her remarks. And asked if she intended to heed Democrats’ call apologize, she said, “Oh no, I don’t apologize ever for praying.”

On Tuesday, Johnson-Harrell said she hadn’t had the chance to speak with Borowicz about the prayer, though she hoped she’d have the opportunity to do so.

“I intentionally came to the House to make friends on both sides of the aisle because we need to work together for everyone in the commonwealth,” she said. “And I think it’s really important, my visual, here in the House, because I represent a constituency in the commonwealth.”

She added that, “I do not have a problem with religion. I do not have a problem with choice. I do not have a problem with Jesus. I have a problem with using religion as a weapon.”

In a statement, the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations echoed Johnson-Harrell’s call for Borowicz to be censured, saying the prayer was “filled with divisive and intolerant anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish rhetoric.”

“The intolerant ideology of Borowicz’s bigoted bombast, rife with right-wing Christian triumphalism and obvious Islamophobic and anti-Semitic tropes, was long ago rejected by all mainstream Christian denominations in this country,” Jacob Bender, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “Stephanie Borowicz deserves to be censured by the entire Pennsylvania House of Representatives so that it is abundantly clear that hate speech against any religion has no place in our republic’s political process.”

A spokesman for the CAIR’s national organization said Tuesday that the outrage over the prayer was “justified,” but that lawmakers could take corrective action that stopped short of censure.

“At this point, as long as other lawmakers and public officials are on record repudiating this kind of agenda-driven prayer, I think that may be sufficient,” said Ibrihim Hooper, CAIR’s national communications director. “But it’s really up to people in Pennsylvania to determine whatever course of action.”

Gov. Tom Wolf pronounced himself “horrified,” by Borowicz’s prayer.

“Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn on the basis of freedom of conscience,” Wolf told reporters after a Capitol news conference Tuesday. “I have a strong spiritual sense. This not the religion I grew up in.”

Even still, a censure motion appeared unlikely Tuesday.

In an email, Dermody’s spokesman, Bill Patton, said House Democrats had “not talked about [censure] and most would prefer to put the hurtful remarks behind and move on to pressing issues like raising pay for working people and making college and job training more affordable.”

During remarks from the floor Monday, Turzai called on legislators 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.

On Tuesday, Turzai’s office began circulating video of a Muslim cleric who offered a blessing after Borowicz’s prayer to buttress its claim that it had tried to be equitable.

Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the GOP floor boss told “Johnson-Harrell he looks forward to working with her and solving problems that will help all Pennsylvanians.”

Cutler “later addressed all members that they have the right to express their religious beliefs and have their beliefs be respected by everyone in the Chamber. Those statements do not reflect any interest in censuring a member, but instead moving forward and working together,” Straub said in an email to the Capital-Star.

Johnson-Harrell also seemed to wish to move forward on Tuesday.

“We as Republicans and Democrats can find many, many things to fight about. Prayer shouldn’t be one of them,” she said.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.