“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.
Several dozen legislative chambers across the country permit someone other than the official chaplain — if there is one — to deliver prayers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In a few states, a guest in the gallery might be invited to the microphone to offer a prayer.
Roughly half the states in the nation have established guidelines for the delivery of opening prayers, according to the NCSL. A few states require prayers to be reviewed in advance.
While any mixture of government and religion can spark controversy, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of chaplains in 1983. The court found that the practice of opening prayers was “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country” and that having chaplains does not portend the creation of a national religion.
In Maryland, some House members have pushed back against the secular rules, saying they infringe on their right to free speech.
Del. Andrew A. Serafini (R-Washington County) said he believes that the First Amendment prohibits the speaker’s office from “censoring” the content of his prayers.
“You should be able to pray in Jesus’s name or in Allah’s name or in Muhammad’s name,” he said. “The government shouldn’t be able to control the content.”
“I’m trying to behave, but it is a struggle,” he said.
Earlier this year, Del. Glen Glass (R-Harford County) walked the line, saying his prayer was “in J.C.’s name.” Others have used “in your son’s name” as a loophole.
In past years, that might have caused Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) to lift the lid of her desk and let it slam shut, which she used to do when pastors delivered prayers that were explicitly Christian.
Now, she said, the prayers are much more likely to be “inclusive.” She said she is “grateful for incremental progress” and doesn’t slam her desk anymore. (The chamber has tightened the hinges on the lids so they won’t slam.)
On Valentine’s Day, Del. Mary Ann Love (D-Anne Arundel) led a “Love prayer.” And recently, Del. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Centreville) prayed on behalf of mothers, asking for forgiveness “for whenever we said they didn’t understand us, and for when we didn’t try to understand them.”
This year, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery County) led a Navajo prayer, addressing the “Great Spirit.” Mizeur, who is not Native American, is a practicing Catholic and said she used the prayer to expose her colleagues to “the importance of other spiritual traditions, our shared cultural heritage.”
Del. Michael A. McDermott (R-Wicomico/Worcester) chose to read the prayer that Gen. George Washington circulated upon the disbanding of the army. Was McDermott trying to disband the General Assembly? No, he said — it was a chance “to expose my colleagues to our heritage.”
There’s one thing, however, that delegates seem to agree on: The shorter the prayer, the better.
One morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance, Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) announced the name of the delegate who would be giving the prayer. The honorable gentleman was a no-show, so Busch decided to give the prayer himself.
“Lord, bless this dignified House,” he said. “And let them do your will in their work. Amen.”
Fifteen words total.
“Best prayer ever!” shouted a colleague.
Ben Pershing contributed to this report.