State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz was on the ninth “Jesus” of her opening prayer in the Pennsylvania statehouse when other lawmakers started to look uncomfortable.
Speaker Mike Turzai, a fellow Republican, glanced up — but Borowicz carried on, delivering a 100-second ceremonial invocation that some of her colleagues decried as an offensive, divisive and Islamophobic display shortly before the legislature swore in its first Muslim woman.
“God forgive us — Jesus — we’ve lost sight of you, we’ve forgotten you, God, in our country, and we’re asking you to forgive us,” Borowicz said, followed by a quote from the Bible’s second book of Chronicles that implores God’s followers to “turn from their wicked ways.” Then she praised President Trump for his unequivocal support of Israel.
“I claim all these things in the powerful, mighty name of Jesus, the one who, at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord, in Jesus’ name,” Borowicz said.
By the time she said “Amen,” Borowicz had invoked Jesus 13 times, deploying the name between prayerful clauses as though it were a comma. She mentioned “Lord” and “God” another six times each and referenced “The Great I Am” and “the one who’s coming back again, the one who came, died and rose again on the third day.”
As the prayer reached a crescendo, at least one member shouted objections. Turzai, standing behind her, looked up again and nudged her elbow, prompting her to quickly conclude the address. Afterward, the protests only grew louder.
“It blatantly represented the Islamophobia that exists among some leaders — leaders that are supposed to represent the people,” Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, the newly sworn-in Democrat who is Muslim, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Monday. “I came to the Capitol to help build bipartisanship and collaborations regardless of race or religion to enhance the quality of life for everyone in the Commonwealth.”
Johnson-Harrell brought with her 55 guests, all there to see her historic moment at the statehouse. Thirty-two of them were Muslim, she told local news outlets. She later called for the General Assembly to censure Borowicz.
Johnson-Harrell’s new colleagues also came to her defense.
“Never have we started out with a prayer that divides us,” said the chamber’s top Democrat, Rep. Frank Dermody, speaking from the House floor. “Prayer should never divide us. It should bring us together.”
Rep. Jordan Harris, another high-ranking Democrat who called himself a devout Christian, criticized Borowicz for “weaponizing” her religion.
“I’m a Christian, and I believe in Christ,” Harris said in a statement. “What I believe is Christ’s teaching more than anything, and his teaching would not be about, and was not about, dividing us as a people, but uniting us as a people.”
Other state lawmakers called Borowicz’s prayer racist and said it was “fire and brimstone Evangelical prayer” that “epitomizes religious intolerance.”
Borowicz, responding to a local reporter’s question, refused to apologize.
“That’s how I pray every day. … I don’t apologize ever for praying,” she said.
Turzai later said that when the House invites religious leaders to lead the invocation, they’re instructed to respect all religious beliefs. However, the Patriot-News reported, lawmakers were not given the same instructions.
In recent years, the customary opening prayer — which kicks off every Pennsylvania legislative session day and was historically noncontroversial — has become another, minor front in an ongoing battle over religious representation and the separation of church and state. Last year, a federal court overturned statehouse rules that barred non-theists, who do not hold beliefs about any deity, from giving the opening invocation.
The judge ruled that the ban violated the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause, which protects the free exercise of religion. Republicans have appealed that verdict.
On Thursday, as criticism of Borowicz continued, the prominent evangelist Franklin Graham defended the lawmaker.
“She doesn’t need to apologize,” Graham wrote on Facebook. “We don’t change who we are or what we believe because someone who is present may believe differently than we believe. I know Stephanie Borowicz would appreciate your prayers and encouragement. I always appreciate anyone who has the guts to stand up for Jesus.”