For 25 years when I was director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, I coordinated the chaplaincy program for both legislative chambers. Once the program was set up, and a clergy coordinator was selected by a local ministerial association, we told that coordinator the program had to be inclusive and nondenominational. We then kept at arm’s length to honor the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as we believed it would be inappropriate for anyone in government, legislators or staff, to interfere.
Now, that tradition was broken earlier this legislative session when Dr. Nadim Koleilat was disinvited from giving the opening prayer in the North Dakota House of Representatives because he is not a Christian. Even if he was invited back later, the damage has been done, and all of us should be ashamed of what happened.
By justifying their actions because the day this occurred was Ash Wednesday, legislators were using the traditions of one religion to disinvite someone of another faith because they wanted one of their own to give the prayer on a special day for their religion. That is exactly what the Establishment Clause is about. There are no preferred religions in this country, and no religion should have priority over another simply because it is a special day for adherents of that faith.
I have heard it suggested that special attention could be given to make sure Christians give the prayer on special days for that religion, and similar recognition could be provided by having Jewish people give prayers on special days for Jews and Muslims give the prayers on Islamic special days. That would be a very dangerous path, as it would put government in the business of identifying important days for different religions.
Just how important are these prayers? I sometimes got complaints from legislators, usually because the prayers were too long. Once I had a delegation of legislators in my office because they were upset with the prayer of the day, and they wanted me to fix it. I looked into it, and found the offending clergy was the pastor of a legislator’s home church who saw the prayer as his opportunity for a little lecture. I did not touch that one.
Many members of the clergy, particularly from denominations that require little in formal education for their leaders, obviously do not understand what a nondenominational prayer should be. I am sure some legislators would have been offended if Dr. Koleilat had referenced the Prophet Muhammed in his prayer, and yet it is not unusual to hear references to Jesus in our legislative chambers. Sorry, folks, but once you invoke the name of Jesus, you have failed the nondenominational test.
We in North Dakota are better than to treat people the way Dr. Koleilat was treated. It is time for some basic civics education for the leaders in the North Dakota House of Representatives. Because so little understanding or respect has been displayed for the Establishment Clause, this is a good time to consider abolishing the tradition of opening daily legislative sessions with a religious observance.
Now for full disclosure of who I am. I had ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. My father was a pastor who sometimes gave opening prayers at the Legislature before I got involved. One more thing—Dr. Koleilat is one of my doctors. I am so sorry he was treated the way he was.