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Prayer in Congress: Not Just for House and Senate

Protesters gather outside the Supreme Court during arguments over prayer at public meetings and the separation of church and state in November 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Protesters at the Supreme Court during arguments over prayer at public meetings and the separation of church and state in November 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Taxpayer dollars have been used to pay chaplains of the House and Senate since the spring of 1789, when the first of 106 different ordained Christian ministers were elected to those jobs.

Only one of them, however, served as a member of Congress before returning as a man of the cloth: Oliver Cromwell Comstock, who spent three terms as a congressman from upstate New York before becoming a Baptist pastor and returning to the House as chaplain for eight months in 1837.

Now that 19th century politician-preacher has found something akin to a 21st century successor in the form of K. Michael Conaway, a six-term Baptist Republican from Midland, Texas, and the new chairman this year of the House Agriculture Committee.

Although he’s a corporate accountant by profession, Conaway views his new gavel as authority to further blur the lines in the long-established — though still sometimes controversial — relationship between church and state in the Capitol. And so he’s decided, without getting clearance from or even informing GOP leadership, that every hearing or markup at his committee will begin with a prayer.

“We’ve got a lot of meaty things to deliberate on, and invoking God’s wisdom and guidance on our deliberations is, I think, the proper thing to do,” Conaway told my colleague Matt Fuller in explaining his new policy.

Congressional historians, House parliamentary experts and civil liberties groups all say such a standardized program of prayer at a committee is without precedent.

“This is another reminder that the time is ripe to reassess the concept of civil religion,” said Rob Boston, spokesman for the civil liberties group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The best we can say is that this kind of praying isn’t all that religious, but just a public display of piety to score political points. Still, it sends a message of exclusion to people who aren’t of the same faith as the person praying.”

Committee chairmen have wide latitude in shaping the rules for their own panels. And it’s unlikely more senior House leaders would object, in any case, especially at a time when many leading Republicans are starting to dial up their religious conservatism in preparation for a presidential primary season where the Christian right will hold considerable sway. (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s refusal to say whether he believes in evolution is one recent example of this.)

Still, Conaway’s practice appears to be on solid legal footing. The Supreme Court ruled last spring that the Constitution allows municipal governing boards to start their sessions with a prayer. The justices upheld, 5-4, the practice of the town council of Greece, N.Y., which picks a “chaplain of the month” who has almost always been Christian and who often uses decidedly sectarian language.

Conaway is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Conaway is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The decision relied heavily on the court’s 1983 decision permitting prayers at the beginning of legislative sessions. That case was about the Nebraska Legislature, but federal courts have cited it in dismissing two subsequent lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the congressional chaplains and the prayers that open the House and Senate every day.

Many of those prayers are offered by guest chaplains. In the House, the guests are selected by its chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, with an eye to religious diversity but on recommendations from members. (One day in 2007, when his father was in his second term, the assignment was given to the Rev. Erin Conaway, a Baptist pastor in Texas who happens to be Conaway’s second oldest son.)

The guest chaplains are given brief written guidance urging them to “keep in mind” that members come from many faiths and to offer a prayer (150 words maximum, and all in English) that’s “free from personal political views or partisan politics, from sectarian controversies and from any intimations pertaining to foreign or domestic policy.”

It will be difficult to introduce much liturgical diversity at House Agriculture, at least so long as Conaway sticks to his plan of selecting only members of the panel for the assignment. Fifteen are Roman Catholic, the plurality religion in Congress, 12 are Baptist and the remaining 18 are from other Christian denominations.

For both prayers last week, Conaway called on fellow Baptists, who hewed to the spirit of the House’s guest chaplain guidance while making clear where they placed their own faith.

“As always, we ask for knowledge and understanding, but more importantly we ask for wisdom,” was the invocation offered by freshman GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana before a hearing on the state of the rural economy. “To our servicemen and servicewomen in harm’s way today, please give them comfort and security, always. In Jesus’ name we pray.”

The next day, before a Commodity Futures Trading Commission oversight hearing, third-term GOP Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia asked God to “give us the courage to do the things that would be right for driving this country in the right direction that would be pleasing to you” and to ended with, “in Christ’s name, I pray.”

The only precedent remotely close to what’s happening at Agriculture occurred four years ago, when the new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower opened several hearings with his own prayers seeking Christ’s help. Several Jewish members complained, but the small dust-up was totally eclipsed when the lawmaker, Todd Akin of Missouri, destroyed his own 2012 campaign for the Senate by using the phrase “legitimate rape.”

Absent some member of House Agriculture employing a phrase similarly out of bounds in an invocation, the integration of prayer into the congressional legislative routine will be taking its most decisive step in many decades.

And Pope Francis doesn’t arrive at the Capitol for another seven months.


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