ANNAPOLIS – Two state senators on opposite sides of a legislative prayer conflict found a common belief Tuesday: prayers are out of place when lawmakers sit down for business.
“I would be in favor of having the prayers before the roll call,” said Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, referring to the official opening of Senate sessions.
“I absolutely feel, 100 percent, the prayer — if there’s going to be a prayer — must be before the roll call,” agreed Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery.
Saying the prayer then, Grosfeld and Haines said, would give senators the option of skipping it if it offended them. Now guests, not always clergy, are invited by senators to give an opening prayer after the roll is called, when members are required to be in their seats.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, created the Senate Special Commission on Legislative Prayer, which met for the first time Tuesday, after receiving complaints last General Assembly session from Grosfeld.
Grosfeld, who is Jewish, took issue with prayers that made reference to Jesus Christ at the opening of Senate proceedings.
Haines, a self-styled “independent Baptist,” offered one of the offending prayers.
Senators and guest chaplains were referring to specific deities and not respecting written guidelines, Grosfeld and others said.
“It seemed to have reached a peak this last session with so many ministers or clergy people not following the guidelines,” Grosfeld said. “There was a recognition that something needed to be done.”
Chaplains have opened Senate proceedings with prayer for nearly 200 years, according to a Department of Legislative Services report.
Commission members engaged in little discussion during Tuesday’s meeting, focusing mainly on staff reports on constitutional law, Maryland history and legislative prayer practices in other states and in the United States Congress.
There was also no consensus on what the committee might present to the Senate, despite the unlikely agreement of Grosfeld and Haines.
But that alliance may not be significant, said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery, commission vice chairman.
Moving the opening prayer outside the official Senate proceedings, Forehand said, might even destroy the sense of togetherness the prayer is supposed to create.
“And some of the prayers really have brought us together on things,” Forehand said.
“A guest that’s invited to pray or to speak,” Haines said, “shouldn’t be censored in any way.”
Haines argued that everyone should be welcome to invoke any deity by name when praying in public forums, while respecting others’ diversity of beliefs. That’s why, he said, he ends his public prayers with “In Jesus’ name, I pray,” rather than “In Jesus’ name, we pray.”
But Grosfeld takes the opposite ideological approach, favoring greater enforcement over prayer content guidelines.
“At the very least, we need to have as much control as . . . possible,” Grosfeld said. And since, even with tougher rules, the Senate can’t control everything speakers say, the Senate should follow the House of Delegates’ model of pre-roll-call prayers, she said.
Grosfeld said she was surprised Haines had adopted the same solution she had been advocating for months, but added, “The fact that he now feels this way pleases me very much.” -30- CNS-9