Friday’s morning House Session opened as it usually does. A religious leader invited by a House member offers a prayer for guidance to the lawmakers. And as usually happens, the reverend, invited on Friday by Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, concluded “we ask these things in the name, and through the merits of Jesus Christ, thy son and savior, amen.”
But that final invocation of Jesus Christ is a growing concern for Jewish members, according to Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.
Minutes before session began, Waldman, who is Jewish, met with Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a conservative Christian, and told him that some Jewish members were offended.
“This year more so than others, every time the prayer comes up, it’s in Jesus’ name,” Waldman told Weatherford. “This is my seventh year talking about it, and it’s getting to be too much. It would be nice to have an inclusive prayer.”
Weatherford replied that the prayers are optional and reflect the faith of the members.
“Prayers are all chosen by the members, and so every member, Republican and Democrat, has an opportunity to pick a person to come on their behalf,” Weatherford said. “We had a rabbi last week who didn’t pray in Jesus’ name...we don’t choose the prayers for them. And we also make the prayers optional. We don’t actually put people on the boards to record their presence until after the prayers. You and I have talked about it, I hear your concern but I can’t tell someone how to pray.”
“Well, you can actually,” Waldman replied. “It’s supposed to be non-denominational. I mean, that’s the law actually, it’s supposed to be non-denominational, not proselytizing, and it’s just not been. This year, in my opinion, it’s been worse than any of the years I’ve been here. The chaplain, who of course did it himself, is supposed to give them a form that says it’s supposed to be non-denominational. For Jewish members, it’s an insult.”
“We hear you,” Weatherford said. “We hear you. Ok.”
The form speakers are given by the House chaplain actually only suggest that the name of whatever gods one worships are named.
“Religious sectarianism at public events is not only a breach of etiquette, but represents insensitivity to the faith of others,” the form states. “In opening and closing the prayer, the leader should be especially sensitive to expressions that may be suitable to members of some faiths.”
But Waldman said that hasn’t happened this session.
“We either pray in the name of Jesus, or there are statements about the father the son and the holy spirit, it’s just not non-denominational,” Waldman said. “I don’t care if it’s optional. That shouldn’t be the litmus test. It should be inclusive.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 1983 decision that allowed Congress and state legislatures to open in prayer. But what is stated in the prayer the ruling didn’t specify, leaving it pretty much to individual governing bodies or states to decide.
In Indiana, for instance, a federal district ruled in 2005 that prayers in the Indiana House of Representative couldn’t mention Jesus or any other specific deity. Yet in Georgia, a federal district judge ruled Cobb County commission meetings could have sectarian prayer.
Waldman said the in Florida, the issue seems to have already been decided.
“Some lawmakers don’t go until after the prayer,” Waldman said. “I go in because I want to be prepared and ready to go. But I stand there and all I do is wait there for what we politely call, ‘The JC moment.’ All the members know, they look at me and say, ‘Got JC’d again.’”“They would be extremely offended if at the end of the prayer they would say, in Allah’s name we pray,” Waldman said.