Politics & Government

NC legislature starts its day with prayer. Will more diverse members change who they pray to?

Rep. Dixon leads the NC House in prayer on day one of the legislative session

New and returning members of the North Carolina House of Representatives stood and bowed their heads in prayer ahead of the first legislative session of 2019 on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.
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New and returning members of the North Carolina House of Representatives stood and bowed their heads in prayer ahead of the first legislative session of 2019 on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

Corrected on Jan. 30. See story for details.

The U.S. Congress has a deep-rooted tradition of starting meetings with prayer, so it’s no surprise that state legislatures have the same custom. The first day of session this year at the North Carolina General Assembly started off as usual:

“Members and visitors in the gallery, please stand for the prayer.”

Hundreds of people stood up, on the floors of both House and Senate and in the galleries one floor up, as the sergeant-at-arms closed the door.

The prayers offered in the state Senate and House of Representatives were similar.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Warsaw Republican, said he hopes people in government lead “with the righteous desires of their heart.”

The Rev. Sarah Woodard, who offered the prayer in the Senate, wanted senators to have “the strength and courage to make wise decisions.”

Woodard is the deacon at St. Titus’ Episcopal Church in Durham, and is the wife of Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat.

This story has been corrected to say that Rev. Sarah Woodard preaches at St. Titus’ Episcopal Church. She does not preach at the Duke University Episcopal Church.

Both prayers asked for a prosperous session, but they ended on two different notes.

Dixon ended his prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ,” while Woodard ended with a simple “Amen.”

Prayers open each day of session at North Carolina’s legislature, whose members return Wednesday for what’s expected to be months of work. Lawmakers and others who offer the prayer often invoke Jesus. But as the General Assembly becomes more diverse, the words spoken will be more likely to represent a wider range of beliefs.

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Praying to Allah at the General Assembly

Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Charlotte Democrat, is the second Muslim to be elected to the state House, according to the clerk of the House.

This story has been corrected to show that Nasif Majeed is not the first Muslim to be elected to the N.C. House of Representatives. Larry Shaw was the first Muslim, and he served in the House from 1995-1996.

At Majeed’s swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 9, he used the Quran, the Islamic holy book. He said his name and the state symbol are engraved on the cover.

Majeed said he was surprised when Dixon ended the prayer in Jesus Christ’s name.

“I have been to many meetings and people never ended the prayer in (Jesus Christ’s) name,” Majeed said in a phone interview.

Majeed said Muslims believe in Jesus Christ, and Allah is the Arabic word for God.

He hopes to make the prayers more inclusive. Majeed has given the prayer numerous times when he was a member of the Charlotte City Council, and plans to do so at the General Assembly.

“I say the Al-Fatiha and pray to the almighty God. That’s a universal prayer,” Majeed said.

The Al-Fatiha is the opening text in the Quran. There is no mention of any religious figure other than God.

Are legislative prayers inclusive?

Sarah Holland, the principal clerk of the Senate, says people from various religious backgrounds have offered prayer in the Senate.

“In the Chaplain’s absence, as is the case presently, it has been the general practice for members of the Senate to offer a prayer. All Senators are given the opportunity to volunteer to lead the prayer on the day or days of their choosing,” Holland said in an email.

A senator’s family member can also volunteer. Non-senators are allowed to offer prayer if they are invited by the Senate.

In the House, according to James White, the House principal clerk, only state representatives and staff members sponsored by representatives are allowed to offer prayer.

Pat Ryan, the spokesman for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger’s office, says the prayers are important.

“It’s an opportunity for legislators of all faiths to begin the day’s proceedings contemplating a shared purpose that’s larger than themselves and the disagreements of the moment,” Ryan said in an email.

Ryan says he has not heard of anyone saying the prayers aren’t inclusive.

“In this session, we have members of multiple faiths and denominations, and we’ve had folks from multiple faiths and denominations deliver the opening prayer in prior years,” Ryan said.

Before he resigned in 2015, former Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat and member of the Jewish community, offered numerous prayers.

“I indicated several times to the speaker that I was uncomfortable when certain prayers went very deep into proselytizing and biblical verse. They were not ones that showed signs of understanding the need for inclusivity,” Glazier said by phone.

“People who had been uncomfortable with deeply denominational prayers I think felt some degree of relief at the type of prayer I was offering,” Glazier said.

Glazier said he would be sure to not specifically cite any religion or religious figures.

“The more non-denominational the prayer is, the better because it can be more inclusive and there are so many themes one can use for the state,” Glazier said.

A changing Senate

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, is a practicing Hindu.

“I certainly hope that the Senate would be open to prayers from the non-Christian faiths given the fact there is now a member of the Senate who is of the Hindu faith and a member of the Senate who is of the Muslim faith,” Chaudhuri said.

Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Charlotte Democrat in his first term, is the only Muslim in the state Senate, but he is not the first. Larry Shaw, a Fayetteville Democrat, became the first Muslim in the Senate when he was elected in 1994.

Chaudhuri said he meditates during the prayers.

“The importance of prayer in the legislature can really be found in Rev. Woodard’s prayer on the opening day. She asked us senators to be humble, to find humanity and to find inspiration for others,” Chaudhuri said in a phone interview.

Woodard said inclusivity was at the forefront of her mind while drafting her prayer.

“There are agnostics and atheists and we don’t know that looking into the crowd. There were Muslims in the group. One of the men had a Quran on his desk,” Woodard said by phone. “Knowing that, even if I didn’t know that, I always write a prayer that is inclusive of everyone.”

Woodard said Berger asked her to offer the prayer.

Religious leaders’ views

Two religious leaders said they would like to see more faiths represented.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham said at a recent interfaith prayer breakfast that it’s less about the language of prayers and more about the representation.

“I’m never offended when a Christian minister offers a prayer in the name of Jesus. I want them to speak fully from their religious tradition,” Greyber said. “I think it is important that in a government setting like (the General Assembly) for the clergy from all faiths to be represented.”

Imam Mohamed AbuTaleb, who is the lead imam at the Islamic Association of Raleigh, said at the prayer breakfast that the country is seeing an increase in religious diversity in government on the national level, so he hopes to see it spread to the state level.

“You are seeing our leaders and representatives become more indicative of the diversity in the American fabric. That is on the ground, in our schools, in our homes, in our places of worship,” AbuTaleb said. “It’s important to know that we can still maintain respect and integrity for the differences in which we worship.”

Ibrahim Hooper, who is the spokesperson for the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., said in a phone interview that governments must offer access to a variety of religions to comply with the law.

“We are not so concerned with is the content as long as representatives of different faiths have access to the same platform,” Hooper said. “If it’s exclusively one faith, whatever faith it is, it creates the perception that you have government’s endorsement of a particular faith and that violates the constitution.”

Rev. Mark Creech, the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, said the United States has been recognized as a Christian nation from the beginning. In an email, Creech said he doesn’t think “other religions are purposely being discriminated against or excluded, its just that Christianity is what is most prominent.”

“And though we affirm the separation of church and state, there is nowhere a repudiation of Christianity as one of our great institutions or as something which promotes sublime goodness and well-being. Instead Christianity or Christian principles are acknowledged voluminously, in presidential speeches, judicial opinions, federal holidays, legislation, national and state monuments, etc.,” Creech said.

Creech cited retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion of the Town of Greece (N.Y.) v. Galloway. The Supreme Court ruled that prayers may include references to specific religions, but cannot discriminate against other religions.

“Kennedy essentially said it was a means of adding gravity to the occasion and it reflects our most precious values which have been a long part of this country’s tradition. He said that when prayer is offered in a solemn and respectful tone,” Creech said, it “invites legislators in that moment to consider our nation’s shared ideas and common objectives before starting the sensitive and often contentious business of governing.”

Separation of church and state

Even with U.S. Supreme Court decisions for guidance, UNC Law School Professor William Marshall said, “the parameters are pretty ill defined.”

In the case of prayer at the General Assembly, Marshall said sectarian prayers are constitutional. Legislators asking people to stand up during the prayers could raise issues, but that’s also “conditional,” he said.

Alex Luchenitser, a lawyer at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized the practice.

“The people in the gallery are going to feel pressured to rise, which may violate their freedom of conscience,” Luchenitser said.

North Carolina state legislators and spectators in the galleries are asked to stand for the prayer at the start of every session. Some legislators have asked people to bow their heads.

Luchenitser said it is legal to mention religious figures and deities in public prayers at government meetings, but if the prayers are exclusively Christian then it could raise some red flags, and it “sends a message to people they are being excluded.”

Lawsuits over government prayers

North Carolina has a track record of lawsuits regarding prayer at government meetings.

In 2009, residents sued Forsyth County because the county commissioners started their meetings with Christian prayers. Most recently, residents sued Rowan County for the same reason.

The challengers in Forsyth won their lawsuit against the county commissioners, but after the Supreme Court’s decision in the New York case, the commissioners agreed to restore sectarian prayer, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.

Residents of Rowan County won their lawsuit, and Rowan County has to pay the ACLU $285,000, McClatchy reported.

The challengers in both of these cases were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, and Sen. Carl Ford, a Kannapolis Republican, filed a joint House Resolution in 2013 that would have allowed the General Assembly to refuse to acknowledge any rulings by courts on prayers in North Carolina.

Rep. Michelle Presnell, a Yancey County Republican, received some backlash in 2013, as reported by WRAL, for saying she does not “condone terrorism” when asked in an email if she would be comfortable if there was an Islamic prayer at the General Assembly.

The National Conference of State Legislatures found that 50 states and U.S. territories offer prayer at the start of every session in either their state Senate, state House or both.

Rashaan Ayesh is The News & Observer’s Fact Checking Fellow. She looks into claims made by politicians and pundits all over North Carolina. She grew up in Raleigh and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at rayesh@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4802.