Pa. House prayer rejected over 'Jesus'
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HARRISBURG -- Three weeks ago, a Christian clergyman from Adams County was surprised and upset when state House officials wouldn't let him open a session with a prayer that contained what they termed an "offensive" word -- the name of Jesus.
He planned to end his prayer with "In Jesus' name, Amen." Now the Rev. Gerry Stoltzfoos of the Freedom Valley Worship Center in Gettysburg is hoping for a different result next week, when he opens a state Senate session with a prayer.
State House officials said they didn't err when they asked the pastor to alter his invocation due to a brief, quickly repealed policy of vetting prayers.
But as word about the incident spreads in and out of the Legislature, they are hearing increasing numbers of complaints, online criticism and even threats of lawsuits, which is bogging down the already complicated process of enacting an overdue state budget.
The Rev. Stoltzfoos said he didn't really want to open the House session but agreed to pray as a favor to a member of his church, state Rep. Will Tallman, D-Adams.
"I reluctantly agreed because it always seemed to me that the prayer was more for show than that they really wanted to get guidance from God," the Assembly of God pastor said last week. "But I agreed for Mr. Tallman's sake because I respect him very much."
He said House Speaker Keith McCall's office asked him "to submit my prayer in writing and to make sure it was nondenominational. I wrote it out and sent it to them. They said my prayer was rejected because it contained an offensive word. Just once, in closing, I mentioned Jesus.
"I was incredibly surprised," he said. "I thought they were kidding. I had carefully crafted the prayer not to be offensive in any way."
After being told he couldn't use Jesus' name, the Rev. Stoltzfoos said he decided not to say the prayer at all rather than omit the name of his Lord and Savior.
"OK, that's fine, I'm not the guy for this," he said.
Mr. Tallman said he did talk to Mr. McCall later and isn't upset with him, "but I think he wrongly interpreted the rules" about House prayer.
"I think my pastor was protected by the First Amendment, but Keith thinks he has a legitimate concern about lawsuits" that could be filed over mixing religion with public business, Mr. Tallman said.
"Some people are portraying Keith as anti-Jesus, but I know he isn't," Mr. Tallman added.
Paul Parcells, Mr. McCall's chief of staff, said the situation is getting blown way out of proportion, especially in cyberspace. An e-mail from a group called The Pray in Jesus Name Project has launched an online petition for people to sign, urging Pennsylvania officials "to stop banning the name of Jesus in Pennsylvania state House prayers."
The petition describes Mr. McCall as the "anti-Jesus speaker of the Pennsylvania House." It also describes the Rev. Stoltzfoos as a "pro-Jesus hero who refused to deny Christ nor water down prayers."
"We've had threats phoned in and a ton of angry e-mail," Mr. Parcells said. "Someone [online] even said Mr. McCall would burn in hell."
The criticism is an unwelcome distraction at a time when legislators and staff members are trying to focus on adopting a new state budget, which is already more than two weeks late, he said.
Mr. Parcells said the harsh description of Mr. McCall is off-base and ridiculous. He said his boss is a Christian -- "a devout Catholic, but he doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve."
There has only been one real problem with a prayer to open a House session, Mr. Parcells said, and it didn't start with the Rev. Stoltzfoos.
About two months ago, Mr. Parcells said, a clergyman he declined to name recited a prayer that numerous legislators thought was offensive and prompted some to walk out of the chamber. That prayer has triggered similar reactions when recited before lawmakers elsewhere.
First offered in 1996 by a guest chaplain in the Kansas House, the prayer still circulates on the Internet. It includes these phrases:
"Heavenly father, we have lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values. We have ridiculed the absolute truth of your Word and called it pluralism; we have worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism; we have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle; we have exploited the poor and called it the lottery ...
"We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare; we have killed our unborn and called it choice; we have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression."
For a period of about two weeks after the walkout, which included the date when the Rev. Stoltzfoos was to pray, House officials asked to see planned prayers in advance. But pastors and legislators complained, calling it censorship.
Now, a letter from Mr. McCall is sent to prospective guest chaplains, asking them to use "an interfaith, non-denominational prayer" and to refrain from expressing views on legislative, political or governmental issues before or during the prayer."
Saying "God" or "Father" is permissible in the House, but its officials still don't want pastors to mention specific religious figures, such as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha or others.
The Senate is more liberal when it comes to opening prayers, said Drew Crompton, legal counsel to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. The Senate also tries to ensure diversity of clergy who offer its session-opening prayers, he said.
A letter sent to prospective clergy states that opening prayer "has been a Senate order of business observed for many years," and adds, "Please be mindful of the religious diversity of the members of our chamber."
About a year ago, a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged that prayers in the state Senate be nonsectarian. The watchdog group complained that opening prayers usually only contained Jesus' name, usually as "In Jesus' name, we pray."
Senate officials responded by opening the prayers to leaders from various faiths, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian and more recently, Buddhist and Sikh clergy. The policy seems to be working well, Mr. Crompton said.
"We want diversity, but we don't want to regulate speech," he said.
Sen. Richard Alloway, who also represents Adams County, where the Rev. Stoltzfoos lives, has invited the pastor to open a Senate session July 29 with prayer. It's OK to mention the name of Jesus, he was told.
The Rev. Stoltzfoos said two law firms have contacted him about suing the House, but "I am reluctant to do that. I'm not looking for a fight."
First Published July 19, 2009 12:00 am