State News

House leaders consider changes to prayer rules

Posted July 9, 2010 7:49 a.m. EDT
Updated July 9, 2010 2:51 p.m. EDT

— Lawmakers plan to review procedures for guest chaplains in the state House after one pastor complained that he was asked not to refer to Jesus.

House Speaker Joe Hackney and Minority Leader Paul Stam said they plan to make sure the House rules on prayers are constitutional, multiple media outlets reported.

The Rev. Ron Baity of Berean Baptist Church in Forsyth County was invited to give the opening prayer at House sessions during the week of May 31.

He said he provided his prayer to a clerk, as requested. When the clerk saw that the prayer contained a reference to Jesus, she told him that people of many faiths attend the session and asked if he would drop the reference.

"For me to be asked not to pray in the name of Jesus is for someone to ask me to violate my faith," Baity said.

He said he told the House clerk, "I am a Christian, and as a Christian, I too can be offended, and I am offended if I cannot pray in the name of Jesus."

Baity said he was allowed to give his prayer May 31 but was told that his services weren't needed beyond that.

"I was made to feel like a second-class North Carolinian when I was told that my services would no longer be needed if I could not offer the opening prayer in the manner prescribed by the House of Representatives," Baity said.

In a joint statement Thursday, Hackney, D-Orange, and Stam, R-Wake, said they intended "to review our procedures and guidelines concerning guest chaplains, and we will make sure we abide by applicable constitutional procedures."

For many years, the House has requested, but not required, that guest chaplains deliver nonsectarian prayers, they said.

"This is intended as a show of respect for all the religions practiced by the House and the people we represent," Hackney and Stam said in their statement.

David Gibbs, an attorney for the Christian Law Association, which represents Baity in the dispute, said the House's actions amount to religious discrimination.

"If the speaker were to say, 'I will not allow people of a certain race to pray,' everyone would say that's discrimination," Gibbs said. "What's the difference when people who pray in Jesus' name are told, 'You're not allowed to pray, but everyone else is allowed to pray?'"

Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, supports the House's move, saying the General Assembly cannot appear to be endorsing any religion.

"The government has an obligation to stay neutral on matters of religion so that all citizens in North Carolina are included by their government," Parker said.

Baity, speaking Thursday to about 150 supporters at his church, said he wants Hackney to apologize. He said he also wants to be able to give the prayer in the state House without restrictions on what he can say.