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.
The tradition, which has been celebrated at least since the lawmaking days of Thomas Jefferson and often features the New Testament, is coming under scrutiny this year in a state with a growing population of non-Christians. And it is prompting some uncomfortable lawmakers to ask that prayers in the chamber respect the different faiths represented in the House and across the commonwealth.
“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.”
Just this week, pastor Shahn W. Wilburn of Riverview Baptist Church in southwest Virginia thanked the delegates for “the privilege of standing here in this historic chamber and proclaiming the glorious news of the gospel.” He went on to declare that “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures and that he was buried and that he rose again the third day.”
In part to reflect the seismic demographic shifts in recent decades that have helped Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu 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.”
In previous years, Republicans have tried unsuccessfully to guarantee the right to prayer in schools and other public places through the state Constitution. Constitutional amendments do not have to be signed by the governor, but they must be passed by the legislature before and after an election before going to voters for ratification.
The current bill, introduced by four conservative senators, instead puts the right to pray in state code and directs public schools not to regulate religious views in otherwise permissible speeches unless they are disruptive or obscene.
Critics of the proposed legislation have argued that the bill would be used to enshrine Christianity in schools and public life. McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy confirmed the governor’s plans to veto the measure.
“While the governor respects the right to exercise religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution, he is concerned about the bill’s constitutionality and possible unintended consequences,” Coy said.
Prayers in the House have become contentious before. In 2010, delegates were urged to boycott 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.
Virginia has a robust Christian history. The first Christian television station in the country, the Christian Broadcasting Network, was founded here. Jerry Fallwell’s Liberty University, which has become the nation’s largest university with a religious affiliation, is in Lynchburg. Attempts to legalize gambling regularly stall after push-back from Christian groups.
As for prayer in the House this session, there are 12 Baptists, six Catholics, five Methodists, three Episcopalians, two Mormons, two Lutherans and one Anglican on the calendar. A rabbi, invited by Filler-Corn, is the only non-Christian on the schedule this year.
Clerk G. Paul Nardo sent a letter in late January to House leaders, asking them to remind their guests that “out of consideration to the persons of different faiths who will be present, prayers are respectfully requested to be ecumenical in nature.”
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) has reiterated the clerk’s request to his caucus, spokesman Matthew Moran said. But, Moran added, “ultimately the members invite the faith leaders who deliver the invocation.”
Nardo asks for a copy of each prayer in advance so it can be printed in the daily journal, but he doesn’t think it is his place to edit the words.
“That puts me in a difficult situation,” he said. “To call up and say, ‘Father or Rabbi, I really don’t think this is how you should to it . . . coming from a government official, they may take umbrage.”
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.
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.
At noon Thursday, the members of the House stood. Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) gave the prayer because a minister invited by another lawmaker was sick. She did not mention God, Jesus or a specific belief. Instead, she asked her fellow lawmakers to “bow our heads in a moment of reflection and thanks . . . in our own individual tradition.”