POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 16, 2011
The Hawaii Senate leadership is recommending the Senate forego invocations traditionally offered by clergy to avoid excessive entanglement with religion ("Senators recommend halt to opening-day invocations," Star-Advertiser, Jan 12).
As a matter of routine, legislative invocations have been delivered almost exclusively by Christian ministers with decidedly Christian themes; for example, last year a local pastor declared that "God created Adam and Eve, one man and one woman" on the same day the Senate was debating the civil unions bill.
The way the Legislature handles the invocations is also problematic. When the leader bangs the gavel, calls the session to order and then instructs the audience to "stand for the prayer," members of the public are coerced to participate in prayers against their will. This situation makes non-religious citizens feel like outsiders. No person should be forced to attend church as a price for participating in government.
While I personally believe the state Legislature should be a place limited to the people's business and that religion should remain a private matter for individuals, a reasonable compromise could save the tradition and eliminate this dispute.
The Honolulu City Council, under the leadership of Chairman Nestor Garcia, provides a template. The Council no longer begins its regular meetings with an invocation. Instead, it provides a moment for any brief statement that does not run afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The Council's "Message of Aloha" is not limited to invocations seeking "divine guidance" but is instead open to any inspirational or motivating expression. Recent speakers have included various Council members, a University of Hawaii baseball coach and the president of the Hawaiian Humane Society.
The new rule, approved unanimously by the Council on Jan. 3, does not prohibit participation by ministers or religious persons, nor does it rule out the expression of basic religious ideas or sentiments. It forbids only sectarian language that could be reasonably perceived to be favoring one religion over others. It limits speakers to generic invocations, which do not identify specifically with any particular faith tradition.
For example, common phrases such as "In the Name of Jesus" or "Our Heavenly Father," which are decidedly Christian in meaning and origin, have been deemed inappropriate. In fact, any speech that could be offensive to members of the community at large is rightly prohibited under the new rule. All invited speakers, religious or otherwise, are advised in writing that constitutional limits must be respected in exchange for the privilege of using this government-sanctioned forum.
The Council's rule represents a fair compromise that allows tradition to continue without contravening our constitutional principle of equal treatment under the law. Both the Senate and the House could bring this matter to satisfactory conclusion by adopting similar rules and written guidance for invited speakers.