Why does the Pa. Legislature begin sessions with prayer? Experts say it’s more than just tradition.

By: - March 30, 2019 6:30 am

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

When a member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives gave a fiery Christian prayer before the chamber welcomed a new Muslim lawmaker on Monday, critics were quick to denounce it as Islamophobic and unconstitutional.

In a two-minute prayer, Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, called Jesus “our only hope” and willed “every knee” to bow to God.

Minutes after the invocation concluded, the House swore in Movita Johnson-Harrell, a West Philly Democrat and the Legislature’s first female Muslim lawmaker.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania called the incident “Exhibit A for why invocations at public events are unwise.”

The Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, whose members include atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists, alleged Borowicz committed a “clear violation” of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

The incident also led some observers to ask: Why do lawmakers deliver prayers in the first place?

According to Drew Crompton, a top aide to state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, legislative prayer has a centuries-long history in the General Assembly.

It endures today not only because it’s tradition, he says, but because it offers lawmakers a “quiet moment” before they begin the important work of legislating.

“It’s a time for reflection, and it sets the first moment of each day,” Crompton said. “I think it has lots of different meanings besides just its historical value.”

Bruce Ledewitz, a constitutional law expert at Duquesne University School of Law, is an atheist who studies the intersection of religion and politics.

Even he thinks legislative prayer is more valuable now than ever before.

“What’s important about legislative prayer is that it reminds us there is more to the universe than just power,” Ledewitz said. “I’m not a believer … But I believe the universe has an order … and it’s very important to remind everyone that there’s more than just self-interest.”

The U.S. Supreme Court Supreme upheld legislative prayer as constitutional in the 2014 case Greece v. Galloway.

While Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that prayers should be “solemn and respectful in tone,” the court made no requirement that prayers by public officials be non-denominational.

According to Ledewitz, that means a lawmaker is free to say what she wants in legislative prayer. She can express her preference for a particular religion and to direct her prayers to its God, just as Borowicz did Monday.

Ledewitz explained that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from endorsing a single religion. No single lawmaker, not even Borowicz, speaks for the government itself when she prays to her God.

But just because a prayer is constitutional doesn’t mean it’s well advised, he said.

“It’s really a matter of civility,” Ledowitz said. “We live in a diverse society. There isn’t any reason why someone should take advantage of a space like that in a legislative opening prayer … It’s outside the bounds of decency.”

Michael Dimino, a law professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, said the First Amendment does place some restrictions on the practice of legislative prayer.

For starters, a government cannot compel citizens to participate in prayer or give political preference to those who do.

The government also can’t discriminate against anyone who wants to offer a prayer. That’s what landed Pennsylvania’s House in court in 2016, when the chamber’s leadership was sued by the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers over a policy that invited legislative prayers from guest chaplains — but not from people who don’t believe in God.

The Pennsylvania Nonbelievers said the policy limited the speech of non-religious thinkers.

House Speaker Mike Turzai said in August that he would appeal the decision. In the midst of the litigation, the House turned solely to its members to deliver invocations.

They do sometimes invite religious leaders to the floor. After Borowicz’s prayer on Monday, House leaders asked an imam who was in the galley to attend Johnson-Harrell’s inauguration to deliver a Muslim prayer.

Crompton said the Senate amended its prayer policy years ago to avoid a similar legal challenge.

Since then, believers of all stripes — including Sikhs, atheists, and Native American spiritual leaders — have delivered prayers from the Senate floor, he said.

People who are invited to the Senate to pray receive a $125 stipend from Senate’s budget, as well as a mileage reimbursement if they travel by car.

Senate leaders have defended that policy, which costs them $10,000 a year, according to a 2014 PennLive report. Crompton said the stipend is an appropriate payment for people who take time out of their schedules to visit the Senate, sometimes after travelling across the state.

Crompton said the Senate doesn’t vet prayers before they’re delivered. But members do provide guidance to the guests who are invited to pray.

“The guidance is brief, but hits on all the right points,” Compton said Wednesday. “We tell them it’s not a time to opine, it’s not a moment to make a stake on an individual policy. Almost universally, people have taken it under advisement and given thoughtful prayers.”

Those pointers are also included in a letter from the Senate administrator, who schedules the clerics and other guests who deliver prayers.

“As you compose and deliver the opening prayer, please be mindful of the religious diversity of the members of our chamber,” reads the letter from Sen. Kim Ward, the Westmoreland County Republican who currently serves as Senate caucus administrator. “Also, I would respectfully request that your prayer not be designed to offer support or opposition to specific public policy issues that may be considered by the Senate.”

Religious leaders add that an “inclusive” prayer will minimize references to a single religion and focus on universal principles that are found across faith traditions.

Those themes may include helping the poor and sick, or affirming the values of peace, justice, and mercy, said Jacob Bender, executive director of the Council on Islamic-American Relations’ Philadelphia chapter.

“When one participates in interfaith activity, the respectful thing to do is concentrate on the universalist non-exclusionary writings within our traditions,” Bender said. “But ultimately, it’s up to them to choose compassion as opposed to exclusion.”

‘Our diversity is our strength’: Movita Johnson-Harrell will be Pa. Legislature’s first female Muslim lawmaker

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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.