ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A state senator who is Jewish said Tuesday she was “highly uncomfortable” while a visiting Baptist pastor repeatedly mentioned Jesus Christ and Christianity in a prayer on the floor of the state Senate a day earlier, and wants to require that prayers in the chamber be nondenominational.
The prayer, and the reaction to it by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, threatens to re-ignite a debate that’s long simmered in the Minnesota Legislature over the content of the invocations that open each Senate and House floor chamber session. Bonoff said she’s met resistance to her concerns from some members of the new Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
“If we’re going to invite clergy to the Senate session to pray, we know they’re coming from a denomination or a religion that represents a belief system,” said Sen. David Brown, R-Becker. “I believe we don’t have the right to censor their prayers.”
Brown defended the prayer by the Rev. Dennis Campbell of Granite City Baptist Church in St. Cloud, who is controversial in his own right. Last year, Campbell drew criticism from fellow clergy when he placed a full-page newspaper ad questioning whether Islam was “a threat to America.” He said Tuesday he still holds those concerns.
Campbell opened the Senate floor session Monday with a two-minute prayer that mentioned Jesus Christ by name three times and made other references to Christianity. “And we pray, Lord, that you help us to show reverence to the Lord Jesus Christ and the word of God today,” Campbell prayed.
Bonoff, elected to the state Senate in 2005, said it has been Senate tradition that visiting religious leaders are asked to refrain from direct references to any specific faith. The letter given to the visitors by the Secretary of the Senate lays out such a request: “In an effort to be respectful of the religious diversity of our membership (Christian, Jewish and possibly others among them), we request that your prayer be interfaith and nonsectarian.”
After Campbell’s prayer Monday, Bonoff rose to object to its content and demand he not be invited back. She said she was not reassured by an initially noncommittal response from Senate leaders. Bonoff said she intends to ask Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch to commit to changing the letter to say the Senate members “require” rather than “request” that prayers be interfaith and nonsectarian.
“I’m a very religious woman and believe deeply in God,” Bonoff said. “We honor God in public and our political discourse, and that’s proper. But in doing a nondenominational prayer we are honoring him without violating the separation of church and state.”
Bonoff said if Koch won’t commit to the change, she will try to implement it through the Senate rules process. Bonoff said other Jewish members of the Legislature share her concerns.
“It makes anyone who doesn’t pray through Jesus Christ, or believe in Jesus Christ — it makes them feel like they don’t belong,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who is Jewish. “It makes me feel like I don’t belong on the Senate floor to which I was duly elected by my constituents. In a government chamber, I and others should not be made to feel that way.”
A spokesman for Koch said the Senate majority leader had not yet received a request from Bonoff and had no immediate comment.
Tussles over the content of prayers in Minnesota’s House and Senate are not new. In 2000, a handful of Jewish House members sought similar guidelines in that chamber to what Bonoff is proposing for the Senate. Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said their attempt was unsuccessful and he spent several years outside the House chamber during opening prayers.
Paymar said a pastor who opened a House session in February with a Christian prayer made several Jewish members uncomfortable. Paymar said he spoke about the issue with Speaker Kurt Zellers, and said he’d likely take further steps if it happens again.
In January, the Hawaii State Senate ended opening prayers altogether out of concern over possible lawsuits on First Amendment grounds.
Brown, who joined the Senate in January, said he’d oppose attempts to keep Christianity or other specific religious references out of opening prayers.
“Pastor Campbell, yesterday, he just prayed the way he would always pray and there just seems to be intolerance for the name of Jesus on the Senate floor,” Brown said.
Campbell declined to say which state senator invited him to pray in the Senate chamber. But he said there was nothing in his prayer to which Jewish people should take offense.
“There’s nobody that loves the Jews any more than the Christians, so that was not meant as an insult or disrespect,” Campbell said. “Rather, it was a show of respect to Jesus Christ — just like our founders showed respect to Jesus Christ and the word of God when they built our Constitution.”
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