Most legislative bodies in this country begin with a prayer, whether by an official chaplain as in the United States Congress or by visiting clergy, who are allowed to pray according to their traditions. But in Maryland, the House of Representatives has the politicians themselves saying the prayers, according to strict guidelines that require the prayers to be inclusive and not addressed to any particular deity. In the word of one representative, they are “secular prayers.”
From Kate Havard in the Washington Post:
During the legislative session, the 141 members of the House begin every day with a prayer. But unlike Congress, statehouses across the country and even the Maryland Senate, where the daily invocation is led by men and women of the cloth, the Maryland House has no clergy. It’s the politicians who are the preachers, taking turns leading the chamber in its morning reflection.
They’ve been doing it for about a decade after members complained that some of the invited clergy had offended with overly Christian prayers that sometimes veered into politically touchy subjects, such as abortion. The House leadership at the time decided that inviting religious leaders was more trouble than it was worth.
Since then, the House clerk’s office has been distributing a form at the beginning of the session asking members whether they’d be willing to perform “Divine Services.” About 50 sign up every year, according to the clerk’s office.
But before they’re given the pulpit, the delegates are given a pamphlet — “Public Prayer in a Pluralistic Society: Guidelines for Civic Occasions” — that instructs them to “show respect both for public diversity and for the seriousness of prayer.”
They are to use “inclusive terms for deity,” meaning “Mighty God” or “Our Maker” is acceptable. So is “Source of all Being” and “Creator and Sustainer.” But Jesus or Allah are serious no-nos.
“The trick to the prayer is to make it secular and to avoid politics,” said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Baltimore). “We want to hear a prayer. We don’t want to be preached to.” . . .
Earlier this year, Del. Glen Glass (R-Harford County) walked the line, saying his prayer was “in J.C.’s name.” Others have used “in your son’s name” as a loophole.
In past years, that might have caused Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) to lift the lid of her desk and let it slam shut, which she used to do when pastors delivered prayers that were explicitly Christian.
Now, she said, the prayers are much more likely to be “inclusive.” She said she is “grateful for incremental progress” and doesn’t slam her desk anymore. (The chamber has tightened the hinges on the lids so they won’t slam.)
On Valentine’s Day, Del. Mary Ann Love (D-Anne Arundel) led a “Love prayer.” And recently, Del. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Centreville) prayed on behalf of mothers, asking for forgiveness “for whenever we said they didn’t understand us, and for when we didn’t try to understand them.”
This year, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery County) led a Navajo prayer, addressing the “Great Spirit.” Mizeur, who is not Native American, is a practicing Catholic and said she used the prayer to expose her colleagues to “the importance of other spiritual traditions, our shared cultural heritage.”. . .
There’s one thing, however, that delegates seem to agree on: The shorter the prayer, the better.
One morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance, Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) announced the name of the delegate who would be giving the prayer. The honorable gentleman was a no-show, so Busch decided to give the prayer himself.
“Lord, bless this dignified House,” he said. “And let them do your will in their work. Amen.”
Fifteen words total.
“Best prayer ever!” shouted a colleague.