Invisible Atheists Keep Jesus Out of Pennsylvania House July 20, 2009

Invisible Atheists Keep Jesus Out of Pennsylvania House

No atheist or church/state separation group is directly involved in this story.

But the fact that such groups exist is a major part of it.

In the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Rep. Will Tallman asked his pastor Rev. Gerry Stoltzfoos to deliver a “non-denominational prayer” to open the House’s legislative session. Stoltzfoos submitted a draft of the prayer to the House Speaker:

“… I wrote it out and sent it to them. They said my prayer was rejected because it contained an offensive word. Just once, in closing, I mentioned Jesus.”

It’s true. The end of the prayer was “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Clearly, Stoltzfoos doesn’t understand the meaning of “non-denominational.”

Instead of changing the last line of his prayer, he whined and quit:

“I was incredibly surprised,” he said. “I thought they were kidding. I had carefully crafted the prayer not to be offensive in any way.”

After being told he couldn’t use Jesus’ name, the Rev. Stoltzfoos said he decided not to say the prayer at all rather than omit the name of his Lord and Savior.

“OK, that’s fine, I’m not the guy for this,” he said.

The prayer’s not offensive at all… unless you’re delivering it to Hindus, Jews, atheists, Muslims, or Tom Cruise.

So why did the Speaker request the change?

“I think my pastor was protected by the First Amendment, but [House Speaker] Keith [McCall] thinks he has a legitimate concern about lawsuits” that could be filed over mixing religion with public business, Mr. Tallman said.

Groups like Americans United and Freedom From Religion Foundation didn’t have to lift a finger. Their mere presence was enough to keep the Pennsylvania House secular.

No one is kicking Jesus out of anything. The House is just correctly not promoting any one particular belief over another. To allow one religion’s deity to be glorified would open the floodgates for everyone else (though the PA Senate does allow for this). McCall made the right call. His policy works:

Now, a letter from Mr. McCall is sent to prospective guest chaplains, asking them to use “an interfaith, non-denominational prayer” and to refrain from expressing views on legislative, political or governmental issues before or during the prayer.”

Saying “God” or “Father” is permissible in the House, but its officials still don’t want pastors to mention specific religious figures, such as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha or others.

Frankly, I find “God” and “Father” to be offensive, too — it’s like saying “the N-word” instead of “nigger” — both mean the same thing, but one is allowed while the other is taboo. “God” and “Father” are both not-so-subtle ways of letting people like me know I’m not welcome in PA.

Still, I guess it’s a small step forward that mentions of specific Gods aren’t allowed.

(Thanks to Matthew for the link!)

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  • Rev. Gerry Stoltzfoos that just doesn’t understand what a non-denominational prayer is, and what words to avoid, is quite worrying. He probably thought denomination referred to Catholic / Protestant etc. rather than religion in general.

    Fact is that there is really no such thing as a non-denominational prayer as of such a wide variety of religious experience, not all of which have a single monotheistic creator god at the heart of their myth.

    So, time to stop the nonsense, and get prayer out of government across the world. We all know that in the USA non-denominational prayer just means Christian, but without a label saying such.

  • Frank

    Is it a step forward? A highly denominational prayer would force people to look in the face the exclusionary nature of what they are doing. A “non-denominational” prayer allows them to pretend they are being tolerant.

  • I do not think atheist are invisible in harrisburg the capital of pa. In may myself and a few other members of pa non-believers talked to law makers about the taking of tax payer funded bibles. And carl silverman of pa non-believers has been on a local talk radio show in harrisburg many times talking about atheist issues.

  • McCall has confused the terms “non-denominational” and “non-sectarian”. “Jesus” is non-denominational, but not non-sectarian.

    Like it or not, non-sectarian legislative prayer has been ruled constitutional by SCOTUS.

    So, McCall was at least trying to follow the rules of SCOTUS.

    We Pennsylvanians still have some issues with the PA House of Reps., although their behavior toward atheists has improved a bit over the last 4 years. In the past they wanted to force us in the visitors’ gallery to stand up for their silly prayers. Now, they just intimidate us to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

    But, of the 235 or so legislators, guess how many were in attendence for the prayer and Pledge the last time we visited? About 15. They are such hypocrites.

    The PA Senate invites Buddhists and Sikhs but still refuses to invite Wiccans and atheists, after numerous requests.

  • Claudia

    God: As in one god, which automatically disqualifies all polytheists.

    Father: As in a male deity, which automatically disqualifies any matriarchal religion or religion that does not adscribe a gender to their deity or deities.

    Prayer: A supplication to a higher power or higher powers, which automatically disqualifies anyone who doesn’t believe in them.

    It really isn’t that hard you know. I was at Westminster Cathedral and they did just fine. Every so often they asked that people stand still and “Have a quiet prayer or moment of reflection”. That’s right, I was in a CATHEDRAL and they were inclusive enough to know that not everyone wanted to pray. If they can do it, I’m guessing governments can do it.

  • Heidi

    I want to see someone write a prayer for the legislature that mentions the goddess, rather than a god. What do you think the odds are they’d allow that?

  • Erp

    I have heard liberal Christians use mother at times instead of father in prayer as many conceive of God as both mother and father.

    Whether this usage has or will show up in government prayer, I don’t know.

  • Typical egotism on the part of that type of Christian. They presume everybody does or should believe in and worship their God/Jesus. That’s why they’re perplexed that a prayer in Jesus’ name is considered sectarian, and actually believe a giant cross on public property is “secular”.

  • If God is capitalized, it is a reference to Yahweh, and therefore a specific god. “Powers that be” may be vague enough, but really I see no reason to do any sort of prayer. Anyone can do a prayer before their work day easily enough and they know it. They make a show of doing it in plain view to inch their religion into the public consciousness. Cheap marketing is all it is. Pathetic.

  • Jen

    Just stop praying. Read an secular poem, play a song, or start with a “hey guys, let’s start!” This is not that very difficult.

  • Neon Genesis

    While I think it’s clearly wrong to have these prayers at all at a secular event, the Rev actually has a point. Either don’t say the prayer at all if you don’t want to discriminate or if you’re going to discriminate, you might as well go all the way with a full-fledged Christian prayer. But don’t pretend that you’re being inclusive with prayer when you’re discriminating against the 15% of Americans that don’t believe in prayer or God. Not only is it bigoted to non-believers, not to mention polytheists and God believers who don’t believe in prayer, but it makes you look hypocritical. Besides, didn’t Jesus say not to be like the hypocrites who pray in public to be seen by others but to pray in private? I don’t recall Jesus ever saying “thou shalt say non-denominational prayers that pretend to be inclusive but really aren’t in secular events.”

  • Siamang

    I disagree a little, NG.

    I don’t think it’s “bigoted” to offer a prayer, any more than any particular type of speech that emphasizes any point of view that isn’t held unanimously.

    If a politician gets up to the podium and says “I am a democrat, and support our president” it’s not bigotry. It’s just his opinion.

    Now, I think that prayer at the head of a government function is inappropriate for other reasons. One being that I think it risks breaking the establishment clause. Two being that only certain kinds of prayers wind up actually being allowed, and that’s viewpoint discrimination.

    But I don’t think it’s “bigoted” for him to pray a sectarian prayer, whether it’s at church or before a session of the House. It’s irrelevant to government business. It’s viewpoint discrimination. It’s (IMV) neglectful of a wide swathe of Americans whose beliefs never seem to get allowed their time before a body that their taxes and national service make possible.

    But to claim it’s bigoted is to claim that any opinion spoken on is bigoted if it’s not all-inclusive. That way lies political correctness so rampant that we dare not speak our opinions about religion either, lest we be tarred as well.

    Best to leave religion out of government meetings altogether.

  • Demetrius Of Pharos

    @ Heidi:

    Why would anyone mention Eliza Dushku or Lexa Doig in a legislature meeting? 🙂

  • Elsa

    I’m from Pennsylvania. When we went to observe a trial in high school, I found out that when the court swore witnesses in, they used a long, convoluted version of the oath that talked about at length about God and about being “judged on that last great day.” At least in my hometown, it’s considered normal.

  • Shawna

    The fact, though, is that he was ASKED to recite a prayer. They chose him. Him. Isn’t it the people who chose him that we should be upset with? Isn’t it offensive to ask for a pastor’s prayer at all?

    To ask someone to say a prayer, and then reject them when mention who they’re talking to, is crazy.

    I think Stoltzfoos was right for not doing it. He said himself, “It’s OK, it’s fine, I’m not the guy for this.”

  • Jwana22

    I applaud Rev. Stoltzfoos for what he did. There is so much hypocrisy in people that is so unreal. Anytime there is a crisis in this country, we all know what to do and who to call on. Think about the Persian Gulf War and 9/11. Rather you believe it or not, Jesus Christ is real, and is very much alive. Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:26 Then God said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image,in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them”. Also note, in order to get answers to your prayers, you have to use the name of Jesus.

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