Invocation Imbroglio: Kansas Priest's Prayer Ignites Legislative Controversy

In a nation that separates church and state, public policy should not be based on "the Word."

Prayer at governmental meetings is a never-ending source of controversy. Latest case in point: an ire-inducing invocation at the Kansas House of Representatives last week.

Guest Chaplain Brian Schieber, pastor of the Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church, took advantage of his place at the speaker's podium to launch a vitriolic attack on reproductive freedom.

According to the Associated Press, Schieber intoned, "We remember the over 53 million beautiful, innocent unborn children who have been legally exterminated in our land. By your grace, guide us to transform this culture of death into a culture of life and a civilization of love."

That prayer, offered on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision upholding a woman's right to end a problem pregnancy, was predictably divisive.

"Prayers ought to be more ecumenical," Rep. Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, told the AP. "It's supposed to be a prayer that all 125 people will feel comfortable praying."

But Sen. Mary Pilcher Cook, a Shawnee Republican, liked the prayer.

"It's always like music when you hear the truth," she said.

House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, told the news service that guest pastors usually receive a letter with guidance about content but that Schieber apparently didn't because he was invited on short notice.

"It was a prayer that caused some concern, and I'm sorry about that," O'Neal said

Schieber is unrepentant, insisting that he was hoping to "stir hearts to conversion."

"We're not supposed to preach what people want to hear," he said. "We're supposed to preach the fullness of the Word."

This is not the first time the Kansas legislature has gotten into a snit over provocative prayers. In 1996, the Rev. Joe Wright launched an invocational screed blasting reproductive choice, gay rights and other progressive viewpoints. Wright's "prayer" is still circulating in right-wing corners of the internet.

What's the solution to this regularly recurring dispute? Here's my take.

Clergy have a First Amendment right to preach whatever they choose, but they don't have a constitutional right to a legislative perch from which to pontificate.

Schieber is entitled to "preach the fullness of the Word" as he sees fit from his own pulpit. Thousands of clergy and laity across America study "the Word" and come to a very different conclusion from his, and they have the same right to spread their take on the Gospel too.

In a nation that separates church and state, public policy should not be based on "the Word" any way. Laws should complement the rights ensured by the Constitution, safeguarded by the courts and upheld by the will of the people.

In my view, the Kansas House ought to drop invocations altogether and get on with the people's business. Legislators have a mandate to advance the common good, but they have no constitutional authority to meddle in religious concerns.

All lawmakers are perfectly free to stop by their freely chosen houses of worship before they get to the state capitol. In those sacred spaces, clergy can address any subject they choose without igniting a miniature religious war.