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State House to continue prayers before daily sessions

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 10:20 p.m. HST, Feb 9, 2011


The Hawaii House of Representatives voted Wednesday to continue holding prayers before daily legislative sessions, unlike the state Senate, which became the first legislative body in the nation to cancel them last month.

The new rules approved by a unanimous voice vote in the House remove prayers from the official business of the lawmaking body by calling for them to be held before session is convened.

Prayers can continue to mention a deity or God, but they can't be used to disparage any religion.

The change is meant to maintain the long tradition of legislative prayer while complying with court rulings outlining when religion and government may mix, said Majority Leader Blake Oshiro.

"It's voluntary for any person to attend and participate. We put in guidelines based on the U.S. Supreme Court ... which said that any invocation should not be used to proselytize, advance or disparage any religion," said Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa.

Fearing a possible court challenge, the state Senate took a different course by ending invocations altogether after the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the practice in letters to both legislative bodies. 

The ACLU's letters noted that invocations often referenced Jesus Christ, contravening the separation of church and state. The Senate voted to do away with prayers altogether rather than constrain them with new rules and limitations.

Minority Republican representatives praised the House's move to retain prayers at the Hawaii Capitol.

"It's a proud day to know ... there is freedom of speech here," said Minority Leader Gene Ward, R-Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai. "There never will be a church in this Legislature, but we'll continue to ask for guidance."

Even though the Senate ended prayers, a few senators have made a point of mentioning God during routine announcements.

A group of nine senators recently prayed in the Senate chamber before session convened to show they'll still worship despite their abandonment of invocations in the official work of government.


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