In Md. Senate, Fervent Pleas for Ecumenical Prayer

By Craig Whitlock

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 22, 2003; Page B05

The Maryland state Senate paid unusual attention yesterday as the Rev. James Kirk, a Presbyterian pastor, opened the day's legislative business with a prayer. Some senators watched with their eyes wide open. Three television news crews rolled tape.

The chamber was waiting to hear whether the minister would utter the name -- Jesus -- that has touched off a minor tizzy in recent days. Three guest preachers have invoked the founder of Christianity in the past week, violating informal Senate rules that the opening prayer be inclusive of all religions.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Kirk toed the line, though he did ask God to watch over the lawmakers and to "give them a sense of humor." Nonetheless, some senators asked Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) to consider taking steps to prevent visiting clergy from getting carried away in the future.

Miller told his fellow senators yesterday that he was concerned about the breach of religious protocol but did not see a need to change the Senate's approach to prayers. He said Senate staffers send a three-page set of guidelines in advance to each cleric that includes directions for giving a prayer "in an ecumenical spirit" to avoid offending anyone or singling out a specific religion.

"These are the guidelines that we expect the clergy to adhere to, and 90 percent of the time they are," Miller said. "We do all within our power to ensure that all the religions that are represented here are respected and will continue to be so."

All prayers for the first two weeks of the session have been led by Christians. A rabbi from Olney is schedule to do the honors Feb. 25. Regardless of the cleric's religion, the Senate policy calls for an ecumenical blessing.

The latest episode came Monday night, when the Rev. Reginald Thomas of Greater Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church in Baltimore ended his prayer with the phrase, "in Jesus's name."

The mention of Jesus bothered some lawmakers, especially because Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum (D-Montgomery) had complained about the issue publicly last week and had received assurances that it would not happen again.

Teitelbaum had asked his fellow legislators to remind visiting clergy to be more open-minded after a Laurel preacher invoked Jesus on Thursday and Sen. Larry E. Haines (R-Carroll) did the same thing the day before.

Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld (D-Montgomery) said yesterday that she thought the Senate needed to take stricter measures. She suggested making attendance for the prayer optional. As it stands now, senators are required to be present because the blessings are spoken after the roll call.

Grosfeld also said it was wrong for Miller to suggest that senators needed to be more tolerant of the occasional missteps by clerics, instead of the other way around. "To place the burden on the members, many of whom represent minority religions, is misplacing the obligation for tolerance and respect," she said. "I'm going to keep pursuing this until we do make some serious changes."

Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore) expressed reservations as well. She said some preachers have used the prayer to push political agendas. "It goes beyond religion," she said. Some of the prayers have contained "ideological creeds with a theological underpinning."

Miller asked his colleagues to be patient. He noted that some ministers do not read from a script, so "the prayer that they've been learning since they were 17 just comes out. . . . Things like that are going to happen when you have an open mike."

Some senators of various faiths said they stood behind Miller. Haines said he thought Miller "handled it very well." Last week, however, Haines vowed to keep mentioning Jesus in his public prayers, saying he was merely expressing his personal beliefs.

Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) was more reserved, saying she wanted to prevent further outbursts but did not see a need to change the current guidelines.

"We have had some of the most beautiful invocations in the past that haven't addressed any specific Lord or God or whatever you want to call it," she said, "and I think it would be a shame if that stopped."


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