“For those who are washed in the spirit of purple and black,” went the invocation as the congregants cheered, “fill the bodies and souls of our Ravens with the spirits and the souls of all who are cheering them on to victory.”
During the legislative session, the 141 members of the House begin every day with a prayer. But unlike Congress, statehouses across the country and even the Maryland Senate, where the daily invocation is led by men and women of the cloth, the Maryland House has no clergy. It’s the politicians who are the preachers, taking turns leading the chamber in its morning reflection.
They’ve been doing it for about a decade after members complained that some of the invited clergy had offended with overly Christian prayers that sometimes veered into politically touchy subjects, such as abortion. The House leadership at the time decided that inviting religious leaders was more trouble than it was worth.
Since then, the House clerk’s office has been distributing a form at the beginning of the session asking members whether they’d be willing to perform “Divine Services.” About 50 sign up every year, according to the clerk’s office.
But before they’re given the pulpit, the delegates are given a pamphlet — “Public Prayer in a Pluralistic Society: Guidelines for Civic Occasions” — that instructs them to “show respect both for public diversity and for the seriousness of prayer.”
They are to use “inclusive terms for deity,” meaning “Mighty God” or “Our Maker” is acceptable. So is “Source of all Being” and “Creator and Sustainer.” But Jesus or Allah are serious no-nos.
“The trick to the prayer is to make it secular and to avoid politics,” said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Baltimore). “We want to hear a prayer. We don’t want to be preached to.”
In Virginia, clergy invited to pray before the General Assembly are also urged to offer inclusive prayers, and the Senate provides its visiting clergy with the same ground rules as in Maryland.
“They are only guidelines,” said Susan Schaar, the clerk of the Virginia Senate. “We do not tell them how to pray. . . . We have them saying, ‘In Christ’s name.’ ‘In Jesus’s name.’ It’s strictly up to their religion.”
The practice of beginning legislative sessions with a prayer stems from the British Parliament, and the U.S. House and Senate have had chaplains nearly uninterrupted since 1789.
In addition to counseling lawmakers, both the House and Senate chaplains sometimes open their respective chambers with a prayer. On other days, guest chaplains are invited to perform the duty.
While guest chaplains are responsible for writing their prayers, “we view each prayer ahead of time to make sure they refrain from saying something inappropriate,” said Jody M. Spraggins, a spokeswoman for the Senate chaplain. The House chaplain’s office also vets prayers.