Unda' The Rotunda 

Public displays of Jesus affection: Religion's sometimes tense relationship with the Legislature

Unda' the Rotunda likes to watch people pray. We listen every day over the loud speakers as the mumbles of the House chaplain recall the travails of Daniel or perhaps dip into a New Testament reflection. We listen to the optimistic intonations of the Senate's pastor asking for divine guidance in matters of state.

Every day we withhold our judgment until the amens are about to begin.

In the Senate one day last week, it was, "in the name of the great physician who came with healing in his hand."

OK, that's kind of creative.

And then, coming from the House side, "we do all these things in Jesus' name ..."

Do we really?

The vast majority in the Idaho Legislature and in Legislative bodies across the country remain pretty sure that we do. But the tradition of legislative prayer, while long and well-documented, is one that the Constitution merely "tolerates."

A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld legislative prayer in Nebraska saying, "To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."

According to those same, er, activist justices, it is fine to spend taxpayer money on two Christian pastors so that they may tend to their legislative flock with a daily public display of Jesus affection. Because that's what we've always done.

We are a very tolerant people, indeed.

Rep. Sue Chew, a Boise Democrat, is a Buddhist who relies on prayer to get through her days. Like one day last week when a simple Medicaid bill was killed for narrow ideological­—perhaps religious—reasons.

Chew says it is difficult for her to sit through the House's exclusively Christian prayers, but she is remiss to say anything. She believes that House Chaplain Rev. Tom Dougherty means well.

"I see his smiling, joyful face, and I don't know that he'll get what I have to say," Chew said.

He won't. We checked.

Dougherty, in his first year as House chaplain, is a pastor at Cloverdale Church of God in Boise.

"They don't have to listen," Dougherty said when we asked if he has any reservations about offering Christian prayers to a public audience that includes non-Christians.

At least two senators are not as forgiving as Chew. Elliot Werk, a Boise Democrat, and Chuck Coiner, a Twin Falls Republican, have had a word with Senate Chaplain David Goebel in the past. They asked him to remember his audience is not uniform in belief.

Coiner is OK with legislative prayer, though.

"I kind of appreciate it as long as it's done in a respectful manner to people of all faiths or of no faith," said Coiner, an Episcopalian by marriage.

Coiner said that the daily invocation—the second order of business in both the House and Senate—is a time to think of colleagues, to remember manners, to slow down.

Goebel, to his credit, listened to them.

"I try to use word pictures and metaphors that I can connect with as a Christian but also are open for other people," he said.

Hence, the great physician in the sky.

Still, Goebel considers his posting at the Annex to be part of his ministry.

"It's a very different kind of ministry than being a pastor in a local church," Goebel said. "I'm used to being very clear and direct about who I am, what I stand for, where I'm coming from."

Many lawmakers are just as clear and direct in their faith.

"I think it is a wonderful idea to make eternal supplication on behalf of the people of the state of Idaho and the Legislature every single day," said Sen. Bart Davis, an Idaho Falls attorney who has fond childhood memories of prayer in school, though he's pretty sure that practice was banned by the time he went to school.

Some lawmakers skip the prayer session, scooting into their seats in time to speechify and vote. Some adjust the angle of their laptop screens so they can read e-mail while everyone tucks chin to chest in a show of spineless conformity.

Unda' the Rotunda stands tall in the press gallery, head unbowed, lips unmoving, emotions ping-ponging between agnostic contempt and a desire to rip off our shirt revealing a thick, imagined chest-sized Star of David tattoo.

Dear Idaho, we heathens, too, are participating in the political process.

The public encouragement of religion, no matter how vague or poetic, is troubling to civil libertarians like Jack Van Valkenburgh, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

"Anytime the government is promoting a religion it's undermining the freedom of religion in my view," Van Valkenburgh said. "And to encourage a particular religion or a particular set of religions is particularly offensive."

The 1983 Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Chambers, rested on the fact that within three days of appointing a committee to hire Congressional chaplains in 1789, the First Congress approved the Bill of Rights, including the Establishment clause.

So if we've always done it, it must be right. But in carving out a First Amendment exception for legislative bodies, the justices failed to apply the Lemon test, the method that all courts use to determine church-state violations. It is taught in most high-school government classes.

"I have no doubt that, if any group of law students were asked to apply the principles of Lemon to the question of legislative prayer, they would nearly unanimously find the practice to be unconstitutional," wrote Justice William Brennan in his dissent to the Marsh ruling.

Three justices dissented.

Every legislature in the union does prayer in one form or another, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most states pay their chaplains.

Ben Franklin suggested prayer at the Constitutional Convention. The U.S. Congress hires chaplains and pays them like ad execs.

Sen. Davis says that everyone at the annex is an adult and can make up their own mind about the prayers offered.

But many impressionable young pages wander the halls, open the doors for Davis and use the public wi-fi to download movies and music. Their political initiation is skewed by this daily religious indoctrination.

Davis offers them a false choice. All Idahoans go to the halls of government to seek redress. Most say they embrace God. Many really do. Some tolerate it.

Who knows how many stay away because their views are excluded every morning during the second order of business?

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