You may have seen the news that Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives opened their Monday session with a prayer. They always open with a prayer, but Monday’s opening is being perceived as especially aggressive, as it occurred just before the swearing in of Pennsylvania’s first Muslim Female Representative. Before reading further, judge for yourself:
You may have heard near the end Rep. Margo Davidson yell “objection!” at which point the Speaker of the House, Representative Mike Turzai, places his hand on Representative Stephanie Borowicz’s arm and she concludes.
Ms. Borowicz and other members of the house also left the chamber in protest shortly before the swearing in of Movita Johnson-Harrell. She has since refused to apologize, and no one seems to be able to provide me a list of who else walked out in protest.
This speech was inappropriate, misplaced, and simply wrong.
It is worthwhile to state exactly why her speech was inappropriate. The United States of America is a both a Republic and a mixing pot. Separation of church and state is a founding principle. What the Representative does in her free time is her business. What she does on the house floor, however, concerns every citizen of the Commonwealth because she is speaking in an official capacity and with the voice of the government. By definition, official speech is limited to that which is relevant and proper for the government to say, within certain parameters.
When the representative declares “jesus you are our only hope” (0:59) and “at the name of jesus every knee will bow” (1:34) as part of a larger protest of a specific religion (remember that after the prayer she proceeded to exit the room in protest of the swearing in of the first Muslim Female to the Pennsylvania House) — it clearly crosses the line.
Please note that I described the separation of church and state to be a “founding principle” not a law. Many, if not all, states offer prayers, host religious symbolism, and otherwise carry on traditions that are fully religious in their daily operations. This has already been litigated at the Supreme Court, and the court found that a prayer is acceptable to open a governing session.
I am not an attorney, but there is an interesting line of questioning here: In the Supreme Court “Justice Kennedy distinguished between offense and coercion and noted that the former does not violate the Establishment Clause.” But would Representative Borowicz’s statement that “every knee will bow” step over the line into coercion? That is possibly something worth asking.
The issue here is not the Representative’s faith, but the place and manner in which it was expressed.
I lay this event at the feet of Speaker of the House Representative Turzai who saw fit to invite Ms. Borowicz to deliver the opening prayer on such a day. He should have been more careful, but I will not speculate on how much he knew ahead of time. As an outsider looking in, he appeared noticeably uncomfortable and hustled the Representative off stage as soon as he was able. The side glances he gives her would be amusing in any other situation.
There is no good reason for prayer to be a part of a legislative session — from any denomination. The result will always be one sided, contentious, and leave someone out.
I do however, recognize the importance of tradition and the personal importance of religion to many. My proposed solution is simple: legislative bodies should offer a minute of silence during which time any who wish to do so may offer their prayers in silence — with any content they so desire. Those who speak during this time should be censured.
I am pragmatic — I do not pretend that the removal of religious spectacle from governance is possible. As a citizen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, however, I insist on a more inclusive and appropriate spectacle at the statehouse.