April 4, 2010

Jesus causes trouble in the House on Good Friday

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Leave it to Jesus to make trouble on Good Friday in the House of Delegates.

As usual, Jesus himself did not directly instigate the conflict, but instead, it came from someone acting in his name.

As reported here in January, the House and Senate handle their opening prayers in different ways.

The House switched to a system where individual Delegates offer prayer 10 years ago, after conflict over Christian clergy offering invocation “in Jesus’ name.”  The Senate still invites religious leaders at the beginning of each session.

And so it was on Friday, when Del. Herman Taylor, D-Montgomery, came to the rostrum to offer the prayer. (Click here to listen to the audio)

The second-term delegate said later that the House clerk’s office hadn’t given him the prayer guidelines, an old brochure put out by the National Conference of Christian and Jews advising how to give “Public prayer in a pluralistic society.” It recommends prayer that “uses universal, inclusive terms for deity, rather than particular proper names for divine manifestations.” This was Taylor’s first time offering a prayer.

But on Good Friday, “the most sacred and solemn day on the calendar for Christians,” Taylor reminded his fellow delegates that the death of Jesus Christ was “to wash away our sins.” He then began reciting the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the one that almost everybody would immediately recognize as the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer.” It’s one prayer that most Christians, regardless of their denomination, can say in unison.

That’s what many members of the House did, joining Taylor. But rather than end it with the standard “Amen,” Taylor concluded “in Jesus name, may the sweet name of Jesus Christ reign forever, may your kingdom reign, may your precious and holy name live forever. Amen.”

That was all too much for Del. Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, who slammed down her desktop in protest.

“I thought it was extremely inappropriate,” said Pendergrass, who is a member of the National Conference of Jewish Women. Pendergrass was among the desk-slamming delegates who got the House’s prayer policy changed a decade ago.

Pendergrass and Taylor had words on the floor.

“I told him the prayer made me feel unwelcome in my own chamber and it disrespected me,” Pendergrass said later. “And he said it didn’t matter, because it didn’t disrespect Jesus.”

Taylor was more than unapologetic about the flap.

“I’m offended that someone says they’re offended by my religion,” said Taylor, who said he attends St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Silver Spring. “I find that very offensive.”

If you can’t pray in Jesus name, Taylor said, “then it’s not your religion.”

He specifically cited Article 36 of the Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights: “Nothing shall prohibit or require the making reference to belief in, reliance upon, or invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, ceremony, school, institution or place.”

(Republicans circulated highlighted copies of the section Friday afternoon.)

“We’re sworn to uphold the constitution,” Taylor said, arguing that the brochure is “contradictory” to that duty. “It’s confusing.”

In the Senate on Good Friday, Bishop Anthony Muse, pastor of his own mega-church in Upper Marlboro and the only ordained senator, also referenced the holy day.

“At least the man Jesus thought that he was dying for someone else,” Muse said, alluding to the public service of his fellow senators. But he also made strong connections to the business of the legislature and Passover (as two Jewish delegates in the House had done earlier in the week). Muse made his closing prayer more inclusive, addressing it to “Gracious Creator, heavenly Father, Yahweh, Jehovah, Lord.”

Muse got a standing ovation from at least half his colleagues, and Senate President Mike Miller quipped that they would be taking up a collection. On the other hand, some observant Jews might take offense at the use of “Yaweh” (“I am who am,” among other translations), the name God calls himself to Moses.

Politics and religion is a volatile mix, and there’s no safe path when God enters the State House. Maybe the delegates should stick to politics. That’s gets them angry enough as it is.