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It's 2012! Many State Legislatures Still Open Sessions with Prayer

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By Rob Boston

Official, state-sponsored prayers before government bodies are often problematic, but many legislators simply refuse to give them up.

The state of Hawaii has just learned the hard way that it’s best not to overreact when citizens protest government-endorsed religion.

In April of 2010, Mitchell Kahle, founder of the group Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State, protested prayers before the Hawaii Senate. Part of the peaceful protest involved filming the invocations, an act that didn’t go over well with the Senate’s sergeant at arms. Kahle was dragged outside, and three deputies pinned him to the ground. Kahle says they broke his camera.

Kahle was charged with disorderly conduct but acquitted at trial. He then sued the state. Officials recently agreed to settle the matter by paying him $100,000. Police at the capitol have also been given training on how to handle non-violent protestors without unnecessary roughness.

“We’re pleased with the settlement, primarily because it sends a message to government that peaceful protest cannot be treated violently,” Kahle told the website Honolulu Civil Beat. “And now that the sergeant-at-arms and sheriff’s deputies have received training as a result of our lawsuit, we hope that this type of experience never happens again.”

One good thing came out of this mess: The Hawaii Senate dropped official opening prayerslast year. The state House of Representatives continues them, however.

Meanwhile, a March 1 invocation (that was really a sermon) before the Oklahoma House of Representatives has been making the rounds on YouTube. Pastor Bill Ledbetter of Fairview Baptist Church launched into a “Christian nation” rant replete with bad history, attacks on church-state separation, assaults on evolution and legal abortion and a declaration that Americans was “founded in the person of Christ and his word, the Bible.”

Ledbetter just goes on and on. It’s a remarkable fountain of ignorance and intolerance – and it was greeted with prolonged applause and a standing ovation.

Americans United has been challenging government’s use of prayers (which are usually Christian) before meetings in court lately and having success. Our opponents in the Religious Right say we’re being extreme and trying to drive every vestige of religion out of public life.

In response, I can only point to the recent incidents in Hawaii and Oklahoma. Is this really the kind of country you want to live in? Do you want an America where people who protest actions they believe are unconstitutional are mauled and where extreme fundamentalist ministers are invited by government to spew narrow-mindedness and hate in your name?

That’s not the America that Americans United supports. We will continue our efforts to prevent the halls of government from being converted into houses of worship.


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