ANNAPOLIS The Statehouse teemed with folks lined up for a yearly ritual begging the Board of Public Works for school money. Some counties showered the board with sweet talk. Others simply bullied.
Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, figured that winning the board over was a job for God himself.
“Withhold not good from whom it is due,” Haines read to the board from his tiny pocket Bible, “when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.”
Haines came across the Proverbs passage earlier that day during a weekly Bible study meeting for legislators and staff. Using it at the board is typical of his approach to lawmaking. Who can argue with the words of God?
Haines and others who attend the early Wednesday morning meetings say they have produced many good ideas over the years. Those sessions, and their basic faith, help them navigate through what they see as tough moral debates in the supposedly secular legislature.
The thorny issues this year include Haines’ bill to ban so-called partial-birth abortions and another to bar physician-assisted suicide.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the wall between church and state is highly permeable among Maryland lawmakers.
“My belief in God is the reason I do anything,” said Alexander X. Mooney, R-Frederick, who participated in a prayer breakfast sponsored by Haines.
“I’ve chosen to take stands on certain issues that reflect the faith I’ve chosen.”
For those who insist on an ironclad separation between religion and government, Delegate Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel, likes to remind people that the reason the wall was erected was to protect religious freedom.
“I don’t think it was ever meant to (hinder) free expression of religion,” said Greenip, who maintains a library of Christian novels in her office.
Early on a brilliant Wednesday morning this month, several legislators and staff chatted in a Senate conference room adorned with oil portraits of powder-wigged former Maryland governors. Through the picture window framed by plush maroon curtains stood the Statehouse, where in a few hours they would conduct the people’s business.
Here at the Bible study group they do the public’s work as well:
“A constituent’s husband was just released on bail,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, to the room of bowed heads and closed eyes. “Lord, please protect her and I pray that no harm comes to her.”
The group prayed for Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D- Baltimore, who was arrested the night before for interfering with a police accident investigation. And they asked that God’s guidance touch House Speaker Casper Taylor, D- Allegany, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D- Prince George’s, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Beyond the well wishing for state leaders, there is little talk of bills and politics in this room.
“We talk about the heart stuff,” Jacobs said.
Over the years, Haines has organized this weekly meeting and two major prayer breakfasts. This year, Lans Rise, a member of the Norwegian Parliament and his country’s Christian party, spoke to about 65 legislators and staff. The next breakfast is March 19.
At that last prayer breakfast, freshman Delegate Kerry A. Hill, D-Prince George’s, was asked to speak. An ordained minister who runs a Christian academy, Hill brought down the house when he told the group that President Clinton is not their leader, Jesus is.
“(My spirituality) is my No. 1 governing factor,” Hill said recently. “From the way I vote, the way I promote myself, everything comes from my religious beliefs.”
Hill’s mentor was a colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he models himself after a long line of African-American church leaders involved in politics.
But other religions frown upon members running for elected office. Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, the grandson of an Amishman and a lifelong Mennonite, said most members of his church didn’t know what to make of his first campaign for office nine years ago.
“They didn’t know how to handle it,” said Stoltzfus, who believes he’s the first Mennonite in the Maryland Assembly. “But now they”ve become more supportive. Now many of them are even wearing my bumper stickers on their cars.”
Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. D-Baltimore County, the pastor of Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn, says he tries to avoid overtly mixing religion with legislating.
“I try to address issues of policy based not on the religious, but on what’s best for public policy,” he said. “For example, the argument down here is that abortion ought to be afforded to poor people. That’s a policy issue for me. I don’t want equality of death, I want equality of life.”
Some of the lawmakers acknowledge they’ve encountered resistance to injecting religion into governing.
“Legally, I think the separation is there,” said Hill. “But I don’t think you can ever separate the two. No matter what environment, you’re always going to act from that religious foundation.”