Americans United Opposes Sectarian Prayers To Open Pennsylvania Senate

Church-State Watchdog Group Urges Senate To Drop Prayers Or At Least Make Them Non-Sectarian

The Pennsylvania Senate should stop using sectarian prayers to open its deliberations, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a letter sent to Senate officials Oct. 10, attorneys with Americans United note that Senate proceedings frequently begin with prayers that include sectarian language, such as references to Jesus Christ. AU says government endorsement of one religion over others is unconstitutional and asks that it be dropped.

The Supreme Court has approved non-sectarian invocations before state legislatures, but several lower courts have struck down sectarian prayers before state and local government meetings.

“I don’t think legislatures should open with prayers,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But if they’re going to, the prayers should be non-sectarian.

“Government bodies must represent all citizens,” continued Lynn. “The use of prayers with sectarian language implies that some religious groups enjoy favored status with the state.”

The AU letter, signed by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan and AU attorney Nancy Leong, notes that one guest minister closed his prayer “in the name of Jesus.”  Another mentioned, “Jesus Christ our Lord” and a third stated, “We ask this in Your strength, by Your power, in the name of Your Son.” 

Asserts the AU letter, “Similar Christian religious references have occurred at many other sessions. In light of these incidents, we believe it would be advisable for you to ask prayer-givers to limit their prayers to non-sectarian, ecumenical entreaties.”

The letter goes on to point out that even non-sectarian prayer can make some residents feel like outsiders.

“Because the Pennsylvania Senate is a representative body for all its residents, religious and nonreligious alike,” the letter observes, “we urge you to consider ceasing the prayers altogether in order to make all feel equally welcome at sessions of the Senate. If, however, you decide to continue the practice of opening meetings with invocations, we ask that you take steps to ensure that all prayers are non-sectarian as the law requires.”

Last year, a federal court ordered the Indiana House of Representatives to stop opening its sessions with sectarian prayer. The court faulted the legislature for using mostly Christian prayers and told the body to use non-sectarian invocations in the future.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.