Official Prayer

A Tale Of Two Invocations In The Pennsylvania Capitol

  Liz Hayes

A Pennsylvania newspaper headline this week perfectly summarized the current status of invocations at the state legislature: “An atheist shows a Christian how to pray.”

The nonbeliever is AU plaintiff Deana Weaver, a member of the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers. The state House has barred Deana and all other nontheists from offering invocations to open House sessions, a discriminatory policy that AU is challenging in federal court.

But the Pennsylvania Senate has a more inclusive invocation policy and for the second time, Deana offered a secular invocation before that body last week. She invoked principles of equality, teamwork, wisdom and public service.

“We pray that the one principle that this great experiment of American democracy has taught us is that we are so much better when we work together in a spirit of inclusion,” Deana said. “And so we pray. We pray for this democracy of the people, by the people and for the people. We pray for our government to serve all people equally.”

Juxtapose Deana’s prayer with the one offered Monday in the state House by freshman Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton County). In a prayer that wasn’t quite two minutes long, Borowicz invoked “Jesus” 13 times, “God” six times and “Lord” four times. Her prayer even contained proselytizing statements, such as “Jesus, you are our only hope” and “at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus, that you are Lord.”

Toward the end, House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny County) touched Borowicz’s arm, signaling her to cut her prayer short.

AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser noted that it was bad enough that Borowicz’s prayer crossed the line into proselytizing, but it also came on the same day that the state House’s first female Muslim member, Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell (D-Philadelphia), was seated after winning a special election. Many observers questioned whether the timing of Borowicz’s explicitly Christian and proselytizing prayer was coincidental or intentional.

“Opening prayers should be inclusive and respectful to the whole community,” Luchenitser told the Harrisburg news site PennLive. “They should never be divisive. They should not proselytize. [Monday’s] prayer ran afoul of those guidelines. It was proselytizing, divisive and disrespectful to the first female Muslim member in what should have been a very special day for her.”

It’s troubling that the Pennsylvania House invocation policy opens the door for prayers like Rep. Borowicz’s, which created an unwelcoming and divisive atmosphere for both legislators and the public, but slams the door shut on inclusive messages like the one Deana delivered.

A federal district court last year agreed with Americans United and our plaintiffs that the House policy is unconstitutionally discriminating against people along religious lines.

“The policy purposefully discriminates among invocation presenters on the basis of religion and thus exceeds the constitutional boundaries of legislative prayer,” wrote U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner in the court’s opinion. “The House’s pre-2017 opening invocation practice, which coerces visitors to stand during the opening prayer and thereby participate in a religious exercise, likewise offends the Establishment Clause.”

But the state House continues to back its discriminatory policy and has appealed the court’s decision to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Perhaps, after this week’s invocation debacle subjected the House policy to unfavorable scrutiny in newspapers across the country, they’ll reconsider and take Deana’s words to the Senate to heart:

“May you find the courage to make wise decisions, having accepted this heavy responsibility, putting aside your personal and political differences, to serve all of your constituents equally.”

(PHOTO: AU plaintiff Deana Weaver offers a secular invocation before the Pennsylvania Senate. CREDIT: Screenshot from PCN.)

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