HONOLULU – Fearing a possible court challenge, Hawaii's state Senate has voted to silence the daily prayer offered before each session began — making it the first state legislative body in the nation to halt the practice.
A citizen's complaint had prompted the American Civil Liberties Union last summer to send the Senate a letter noting that its invocations often referenced Jesus Christ, contravening the separation of church and state.
That prompted the state attorney general's office to advise the Senate that their handling of prayers — by inviting speakers from various religions to preach before every session — wouldn't survive a likely court challenge, said Democratic Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria.
"Above all, our responsibility is to adhere to the Constitution," Galuteria said after Thursday's vote to halt the daily blessings.
A three-member Senate committee formed to evaluate the issue recommended allowing nonsectarian, nonpolitical invocations that avoided references to deities, but the legislative body decided to do away with prayers altogether rather than constrain them.
"They (the ACLU) continue to threaten governments with lawsuits to try to force them into capitulating to their view of society," said Brett Harvey, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, made up of Christian lawyers to defend free faith speech. "Governments should take a stand for this cherished historical practice."
While every state legislature prays to bless their public work, methods vary widely across the country. Some states pay a chaplain, others require remarks be submitted in advance and many like Hawaii invite members of the community to speak on any topic of their choosing.
The Indiana House temporarily halted opening prayers because of an ACLU lawsuit, but prayers returned in 2008 after a federal appeals court overturned a lower court's decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that legislative prayers are permissible in some circumstances, but the court hasn't considered the issue since 1983. ACLU of Hawaii Legal Director Lois Perrin said the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that the government can't display a preference for one particular sect or creed.
"The Senate's action does not conflict, and clearly aims at creating an environment where all will feel welcome regardless of spiritual beliefs," Perrin said.
Sen. Sam Slom, the only Republican in the 25-member Senate, pleaded for making prayers voluntary rather than eliminating them altogether.
"The Senate must stand for something and not back away when there are challenges by individuals or organizations who make it their point nationally to have this as an objective," Slom said. "As intelligent as we may be, we can still call on someone higher to help us and guide us."
A protester who was arrested for disrupting a Senate invocation last April applauded legislators' action to keep the business of government and religion separate.
"They're a legal body, they make the laws, and they ought to follow them," said Mitch Kahle, founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, who would have been a plaintiff in a potential ACLU lawsuit.
Neither the Alliance Defense Fund nor Americans United for the Separation of Church and State knew of any other state legislature that prevents prayers.
The Hawaii House also is considering limiting prayer, but opened with daily invocations as the legislative session began this week. The House will likely continue allowing invocations as long as they don't mention a specific deity or religion, said Democratic Majority Leader Blake Oshiro.
The Senate's last prayer was a Hawaiian-language invocation Wednesday.