Rev. Gregory Goethals of Los Angeles closed his House opening prayer on May 19 by saying, "We ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord."
The prayer was another example of guest chaplains invoking Jesus' name as the House began its day. For one Hill staffer, specific references to religion are alienating. "It bothers me, not being a Christian, to hear that Jesus is our savior or we should be thankful to be here because of Jesus," the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, recently told CQ Roll Call. "It bothers me more as an American."
The staffer pointed to the notion of separation and church and state, which was at the center of a recent Supreme Court case surrounding legislative prayer. In May 2014, the Supreme Court endorsed prayer at the start of legislative meetings , with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing that such prayer "has a permissible ceremonial purpose" and "is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion." The question of beginning with a prayer recently came up in Congress, when the Agriculture Committee began opening its meetings with a prayer.
For some in the Capitol, a prayer that kicks off the House session and refers to a specific religion can be off-putting. Nearly 18 percent of the prayers read at the beginning of each House session in this Congress have referred to Jesus, and all of those prayers have been given by guest chaplains.
Of the 29 guest chaplains who have addressed the House in the 114th Congress, 13 of them have made a specific religious reference, all of them to Jesus. All but one of the guest chaplains have been Christian.
Guest chaplains are nominated by members of the House, and, given that more than 90 percent of House members are Christian , the probability that a guest chaplain is Christian is high, because members typically invite clergy from their home churches.
Once they are selected by House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy, guest chaplains are sent guidelines for the prayer. According to Karen Bronson, the chaplain's office liaison to staff, the guest chaplains are sent three points to keep in mind: Keep the prayer short, don't get political and remember that the House constitutes a variety of faiths.
"And we sort of leave it at that," Bronson said, explaining that the office has to walk a fine line between reminding guest chaplains of the variety of faiths in the House and respecting a person's right to pray as he or she chooses.
"You wouldn’t ask a Muslim to pray without referencing Allah usually. Some Christians will argue that they can’t pray without mentioning Jesus. So we have to be sensitive to that,” Bronson said. "We also have to be sensitive to the Jewish staffers or Jewish members.”
Bronson said the phrasing pertaining to guest chaplains has been in place for at least 15 years, but every once in a while a member of Congress approaches Conroy about the subject. The members then have to be reminded that the office cannot tell people how to pray.
While invoking Jesus' name on the House floor may bother some members and staffers, others don't mind specific religious references.
“It is not something I really thought about a lot," said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., who is Jewish. "I respect that the vast majority of members are Christian and believe in it. I like the fact that when we have opening prayers we do have members of different faiths. ... We don’t censor what they can say also."
The House chaplain has not made one reference to Jesus in the 44 prayers he has given in the 114th Congress. Conroy, who became the chaplain in 2011, consistently begins his prayers by referencing "eternal God" or "gracious God" and usually concludes them by saying, "May all that is done this day be for your greater honor and glory.”
"I understand my responsibility is to offer prayers that all the members of the House can say 'Amen' to,” Conroy said, "which is the difference in my mind between a chaplain and a pastor. A pastor is responsible for his or her denomination and nurturing their shared faith. So if that’s Christian, you do pray in the name of Jesus. But if your congregation, so to speak, is inter-religious, I try to word it in such a way that everybody present can say, 'Amen.'”
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