February 28, 2014

 

RICHMOND — Every day they’re in session, as they have for hundreds of years, the members of Virginia’s House of Delegates stand together and pray.

At least most of them do.

Nearly every legislature in the country begins sessions with a prayer, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as does Congress. It’s a tradition that dates back to the British Parliament. The Supreme Court ruled 30 years ago that legislative prayers were constitutional, as they were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country” as well as “a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people.” But a Jew and an atheist in Greece, N.Y., have challenged the prayers that began their town council meetings as violating the court’s requirement that prayers not favor one religion. The justices are reviewing an appeals court ruling that agreed with the women that eight years of almost exclusively Christian prayers violated constitutional protections.

“I’d like to be able to take part in the prayer,” said Del. Marcus B. Simon, a freshman Democrat from Fairfax County and one of the few Jewish lawmakers in the House who has made a point of standing in the back of the chamber when prayers are read. “I wish it was one I felt like I could take part.”

In part to reflect the seismic demographic shifts in recent decades that have helped JewishMuslimBuddhistHindu and Sikh communities take root in the commonwealth, prayers in the House are supposed to be “ecumenical” — not tied to a specific faith. Too often for some, they’re not.

“We start with a prayer to feel energized and rejuvenated,” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who is Jewish. “Why not be inclusive?”

This isn’t the only instance in which the legislature’s allegiance to Christian traditions — many of which are still championed by conservative lawmakers — have clashed with the changing sensibilities of the state’s population centers.

On Thursday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vowed to veto a bill that would allow students to pray and make religious remarks in public schools. The measure was hailed by some in the legislature, including Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), who said that lawmakers should “give to our students the same religious freedom and same religious rights that we have granted ourselves.”

Prayers in the House have become contentious before. In 2010, delegates were urged toboycott a prayer from an imam because two of the Sept. 11 hijackers briefly worshiped at his Falls Church mosque — and because a former imam at the mosque is suspected by U.S. authorities of having aided al-Qaeda in terrorist activities. About a dozen delegates were not in the chamber for that day’s prayer.

That same year, then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) reversed a policy banning state police chaplains from referring to Jesus in public prayers.

Although the concerned delegates in Virginia appreciated Nardo’s response, prayers invoking specific Christian beliefs continue in the legislature. But signs of change are apparent.

Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/in-virginia-house-of-delegates-a-push-for-inclusive-prayers/2014/02/20/25c1eb6a-9971-11e3-b88d-f36c07223d88_story.html?wprss=rss_story-courts_law-NW3&_monetaClick=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