State Senate debates prayer rules

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate tried unsuccessfully today to give visiting clergy members greater leeway in the prayers they offer at the beginning of floor sessions.

The proposed amendment to the permanent Senate Rules failed by a vote of 25-36.

Senate guidelines call for interfaith prayers that respect the religious diversity. They also request that clergy do not proselytize or disparage other beliefs. But Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, argued that those guidelines are too restrictive. Hall, who is also a minister, said guest clergy should be allowed to pray as they please and in accordance with their own religious tradition.

“Many clergy have been invited here by members and have felt their religious liberties and their freedom of speech have been denied,” Hall said. “Clergies are asked or suggested that they do not use their deity’s name when giving a prayer.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the current guidelines were crafted to be on solid legal ground. He warned against changes.

“If we make this change we land ourselves in court by somebody who wants to challenge it,” Bakk said.

Jewish members of the Senate also raised concerns. Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said prayers that exclude minority religions are not appropriate for the Senate floor. He also rejected Hall’s religious liberty argument.

“It’s a question of simple courtesy,” Cohen said.

  • sb

    Organized prayer doesn’t belong in the Legislature. The best protection of religion is to keep religious practice and the state separate.

  • Oliver Steinberg

    Lots of stuff doesn’t belong in the Legislature and yet there it is. I hope the clergy don’t get paid with our tax money, at least not more than their parking expenses. But that is not worth quibbling over. You’ve all heard the old bromide about the chaplain who looks out at the lawmakers and prays for the country.

    I want to second the motion by Senator Cohen—this is really about courtesy. There is a certain brand of religion, and it is not necessarily confined to any particular faith or denomination, which is so sure that only its believers have a pipeline to the Almighty and a monopoly on Truth, that its preachers tend to strike at best a supercilious and at worst an arrogant, intolerant, elitist, scornful, and vituperative tone.

    It is more civil to be less strenuously sectarian. Religion and politics have always been intertwined in practical electoral matters, but it’s best to keep them at arm’s length when the campaign is over and the business of governing has to take place.

    The dilemma here is that in order to keep this ceremonial prayer civil and inoffensive–in other words, polite and courteous–the Senate’s current leadership wants to censor the prayers. And that goes against the grain of free speech and religion.

    The solution is to stop calling it a prayer. Just call it a daily free speech outburst by an invited guest. If the guest happens to be a clergyman 19 times out of 20, what a coincidence. Toss in a token atheist every so often, and everyone should be equally happy or unhappy.

    The Senate could sooner solve this impasse by following my suggestion than by hoping for a spontaneous visitation of the Holy Spirit of mutual respect, courtesy, and civility in the present polarized political atmosphere. We’re about where we were in 1858 when Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t sign the same piece of paper when it was time to write the State Constitution.