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Senators recommend halt to floor session invocations


State Senate leaders will recommend that the Senate end the invocations traditionally offered by clergy before floor sessions to avoid intruding on the separation between church and state.

The change in policy is part of a new rules package the Senate will consider for the session that opens next Wednesday. Senators agreed at a private retreat earlier this month to eliminate the invocations, but the change is subject to adoption of the rules.

"We respect everybody’s different levels of faith and the different religions that they support," said state Senate President Shan Tsutsui (D, Kahului). "We don’t think by us not having an invocation at the beginning of session — we’re not making any type of statement, but rather we’re respecting each individual’s religious beliefs."

The Senate formed a three-member committee last year to look into the invocation practice after the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii wrote to both the Senate and state House in August with complaints about "decidedly Christian prayers — with reference to Jesus Christ."

A protester was arrested for disrupting a Senate invocation last April. Mitch Kahle, president of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State, was acquitted of disorderly conduct in November. Kahle is suing the Senate and state sheriffs, alleging he was assaulted and improperly detained.

The Senate invocation committee recommended a new policy that would have allowed the invocations to continue, with restrictions. Clergy invited to give an invocation would have been instructed that it be nonsectarian in character, that it avoid references to particular political questions and that it sidestep mention of particular deities or central figures of particular religions.

Senators, however, believed it would be better to end the invocations than to ask clergy to water the messages down with restrictions that might be difficult to enforce. Some senators thought it would be problematic to invite clergy and then tell them not to mention Jesus Christ or Mohammed, for example, in their prayers.

Other senators wanted to keep the invocations. "I’m disappointed that we’re choosing the route of ending the invocation," said state Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Waipahu). "I think it is a long, honored tradition at the state Capitol and at many other government events and functions. I would think that there would be a way for us to maintain that tradition."

State House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa Valley-Aiea Heights) said the House is looking at legal guidance from the state attorney general’s office and might also make changes to its invocation policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Marsh v. Chambers in 1983, ruled that prayers at the start of each legislative day are not a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court found that such prayers are deeply embedded in the history and tradition of the nation.

Daniel Gluck, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Hawaii, said the group is willing to work with the Senate on an invocation policy that is constitutional. The Honolulu City Council adopted a new rule this month that allows invocations that do not name any sectarian faith or proselytize.

The Rev. John Heidel, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii, said there can be great benefit in the teachings of all religions and value to interfaith messages about public policy. But he said some clergy do not honor the separation between church and state.

"Sometimes some religious groups and clergy, in particular, don’t respect that separation and try to use an invocation to manipulate public policy," Heidel said. "And that is definitely wrong. And so that is the danger, and that is why I would support this move to just get rid of it, because it’s very difficult to handle and monitor.

"Especially with free speech, how do you monitor, how do you tell somebody what to say?"

 CORRECTION: State Senate leaders will recommend an end to invocations by clergy before floor sessions. A headline in a previous version of this story said the recommendation was to halt invocations only on opening day of the Legislature.

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