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Texas lawmakers wrangle over content of legislative prayers. (People & Events).

Members of the Texas House of Representatives are trying to defuse a controversy over legislative prayers by issuing guidelines that urge guest clergy to be ecumenical in their approach.

A letter drafted last month by House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican, asks that clergy be mindful that "the tone and content be respectful of the diverse nature of the body, such that all members of the House, whatever their respective faith, may add their voice to the collective `amen' that begins our day's work," reported the Austin American-Statesman.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat and one of three Jews in the House, noted that some prayers in the chamber this year have had a Christian fundamentalist cast and a proselytizing tone. Many, he said, have referred to Jesus Christ.

"There are a lot of us who do not pray in Jesus' name," Hochberg said. "That's not to take away from anybody who does, but when we are asked to do that, that cuts us out of the loop and that very much says we are not expected to participate."

Some pastors say they aren't sure they can follow the new rules. The Rev. Mark Moore of Lakeside Baptist Church in Canton prayed in the name of Jesus before the House earlier this year. He told the newspaper he doesn't know if he'll go back.

"To be able to say a prayer where Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Protestants all said `amen' together, I don't think I could pray that way because the Bible clearly states the only way to the Father is through Christ," Moore said. "My prayer would be nullified if I did not pray in Jesus' name."

Controversy over prayer has also roiled the Texas Senate. Rabbi Barry Block of San Antonio sparked controversy in February when he offered a prayer that praised Planned Parenthood and supported legal abortion. The Senate parliamentarian removed the prayer from the Senate record, but Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst later ordered it reinstated, saying the official record could not be censored.

In other news about governmental prayers:

* Municipal officials in Orange County, Calif., are mandating generic prayers that don't mention Jesus to comply with a state court ruling banning sectarian invocations before council meetings.

A California appeals court ruled last year that generic references to God in pre-meeting prayers are permissible, but references to Jesus or other specific religious figures are not. The California Supreme Court later refused to hear the case. Now some local governments are moving to implement the ruling.

Some pastors say they won't offer the prayers anymore. Pastor Ron Sukut of Cornerstone Community Church in San Clemente declined to give an invocation before a January meeting of the city council after being told he could not mention Jesus.

"This is indicative of how confused we are, spiritually speaking, about what God is," Sukut told The Orange County Register.

* Members of the Maryland Senate have complained because some guest ministers are ignoring prayer guidelines that advise them to make invocations ecumenical.

Senate President Mike Miller (D-Prince George's County) said he will stress anew the need for ecumenism among guest clergy. Miller had earlier suggested that members who did not like prayers ending in the name of Jesus needed to be more tolerant.

That remark drew a swift rebuke from Sen. Sharon Grosfeld (D-Montgomery County) who told The Washington Post, "To place the burden on the members, many of whom represent minority religions, is misplacing the obligation for tolerance and respect."

Some ministers say they won't pray if they can't do it in Jesus' name.

"If I can't do it in Jesus' name, then I don't want to go to Annapolis," said the Rev. C.L Long, pastor of Scripture Cathedral.

* Americans United has asked officials in Iowa to stop distributing Bibles to new state senators at taxpayer expense. The practice, a longstanding tradition in Iowa, came to light recently after a report in The Des Moines Register.

Sen. Jack Holveck, a Des Moines Democrat, told the newspaper he declined the Bible when sworn in two years ago because he does not believe government should pay to print Bibles.

"I was just shocked, but it's always been that way," Holveck said. "It seems to me that if you are sworn in, you ought to be able to furnish your own Bible."

The state spends about $500 a year on the Bibles, which are embossed with new members' names. The Iowa House of Representatives does not have the same tradition.

On Feb. 11, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan wrote to state officials and urged them to drop the practice.

"The likely reason that the Senate's practice is not widespread is that it violates [separation of church and state]," Khan wrote. "It has long been the law that `[n]o tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.'"
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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