2009-07-23 / Local & State

Protests Follow Pa. House Policy On Opening Prayer

PITTSBURGH (AP) - State House officials say they have been inundated with protests about a policy that barred a clergyman from using the word "Jesus'' in a prayer that was to open one of the lawmakers' daily sessions.

The Rev. Gerry Stoltzfoos, of the Freedom Valley Worship Center in Gettysburg, had planned to end his prayer three weeks ago with "In Jesus' name, Amen.'' Under the policy then in effect, he was asked by House Speaker Keith McCall's office to submit the planned prayer in writing and to make sure it was nondenominational.

"They said my prayer was rejected because it contained an offensive word. Just once, in closing, I mentioned Jesus,'' he said. "I thought they were kidding. I had carefully crafted the prayer not to be offensive in any way.''

He said he decided not to say the prayer at all rather than omit the name. The incident has sparked a controversy on the Internet including an online petition and denunciations of Mc- Call.

Paul Parcells, McCall's chief of staff, said the situation has been blown out of proportion.

"We've had threats phoned in and a ton of angry e-mail,'' said Parcells, who called McCall "a devout Catholic'' but said "he doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve.''

State Rep. Will Tallman, DAdams, a member of the clergyman's congregation who invited him to give the opening prayer, said he does not agree with the policy but understands McCall's concerns.

"I think my pastor was protected by the First Amendment, but Keith thinks he has a legitimate concern about lawsuits'' that could be filed, Tallman said.

Officials said the policy of reviewing prayers stemmed from an incident about two months ago when a clergyman recited a widely distributed 1996 prayer that included commentary on current issues such as abortion. Parcells said many lawmakers objected and some walked out.

For several weeks after that, House officials asked to see planned prayers in advance, but that drew protests of censorship from pastors and lawmakers. Now, guest chaplains are sent a letter asking them to use "an interfaith, non-denominational prayer'' and to refrain from expressing views on legislative, political or governmental issues.

But although House officials say use of "God'' or "Father'' is permissible, they still do not want pastors to mention specific religious figures such as Jesus, Muhammad, or Buddha.

The state Senate asks prospective clergy to "be mindful of the religious diversity'' of the chamber when given opening prayers, but also tries to ensure diversity, according to Drew Crompton, legal counsel to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati.

About a year ago, a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged that prayers be nonsectarian, saying prayers usually only contained the name of Jesus. Senate officials responded by opening prayers to leaders from various faiths, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian and more recently, Buddhist and Sikh clergy.

Crompton said the policy seems to be working well.

"We want diversity, but we don't want to regulate speech,'' he said.

Stoltzfoos said he has been invited by Sen. Richard Alloway, who also represents Adams County, to open a Senate session July 29 with prayer. He said he has been told that using the name of Jesus will be all right.

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