Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the Minnesota Senate to end its practice of opening sessions with prayer.
In a letter to Senate leaders, Americans United said abolishing the invocations would be respectful of the state’s religious diversity and more in keeping with constitutional principles. At a minimum, the watchdog group said, the legislative body should ensure that opening prayers are not sectarian.
The AU letter comes in the wake of a controversial prayer March 14 by the Rev. Dennis Campbell, pastor of the Granite City Baptist Church in St. Cloud.
In his invocation, Campbell intoned, “We pray, Lord, that you help us show reverence to the Lord Jesus Christ.” He noted that “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’” and concluded “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ our savior, we pray.”
Religious minorities in the legislature were angered and offended by the sectarian invocation, and Americans United said they were right to be.
“Because the Senate is designed to represent all Minnesota residents, regardless of faith,” wrote Americans United, “we urge you to refrain from opening future sessions with any type of prayer. If the Senate does continue to open meetings with prayers, however, the Constitution requires you to ensure that they do not advance any particular religion.”
The March 21 AU missive noted that the Supreme Court has allowed prayers to open legislative sessions if they are non-sectarian and non-proselytizing. But Campbell’s invocation, the group said, violated both conditions.
“Any reasonable observer,” the AU letter said, “would have understood that Pastor Campbell’s prayer – featuring multiple references to 'the Lord Jesus Christ' – promoted Christianity."
The AU letter was signed by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper and AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith.
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.