Minnesota Legislator Wants Jesus Out of Senate Prayers

March 16, 2011 - 4:12 PM

St. Paul, Minn. (AP) - A Jewish Minnesota lawmaker is asking Senate leaders to allow only nondenominational prayers to open sessions, after feeling "highly uncomfortable" when a Baptist pastor repeatedly mentioned Jesus Christ and Christianity in one of the invocations.

Democratic Sen. Terri Bonoff says she wants Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch to change the letter submitted to all visiting chaplains to say they are "required," rather than "requested," to make prayers nondenominational.

"I'm a very religious woman and believe deeply in God," said Bonoff, of the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka. "We honor God in public and our political discourse, and that's proper. But in doing a nondenominational prayer we are honoring him without violating the separation of church and state."

Koch said Wednesday she wouldn't support such a requirement. She said the Senate invites leaders from numerous Christian and non-Christian faith traditions to pray, and notifies them that senators come from a diverse background. "I'm not going to get into the process of sort of editing prayer," Koch said.

Several Jewish senators, all Democrats, are backing Bonoff's request but she's also meeting resistance from other Republicans. The GOP gained control of the Senate after November's election.

"I believe we don't have a right to censor their prayers," Sen. David Brown, R-Becker, said of visiting chaplains.

The prayer that prompted Bonoff's request was delivered Monday by the Rev. Dennis Campbell of Granite City Baptist Church in St. Cloud, who mentioned Jesus Christ by name three times and made other overt references to Christianity. Campbell later defended the content of his prayer.

"There's nobody that loves the Jews any more than the Christians, so that was not meant as an insult or disrespect," Campbell said. "Rather, it was a show of respect to Jesus Christ - just like our founders showed respect to Jesus Christ and the word of God when they built our Constitution."

It's not the first time Jewish legislators have taken issue with how prayers are conducted in state Capitol sessions. A decade ago, a handful of state representatives unsuccessfully fought for House guidelines similar to what Bonoff is proposing for the Senate.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said he has spent several years outside the House chamber during opening prayers. He said he spoke to Speaker Kurt Zellers after a pastor opened a February session with a Christian prayer that made several Jewish members uncomfortable. Paymar said he'd likely push for further steps if it happens again.

"It makes anyone who doesn't pray through Jesus Christ, or believe in Jesus Christ - it makes them feel like they don't belong," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who is Jewish. "It makes me feel like I don't belong on the Senate floor to which I was duly elected by my constituents. In a government chamber, I and others should not be made to feel that way."

The Hawaii State Senate in January ended opening prayers altogether out of concern over possible lawsuits on First Amendment grounds.