UPDATED 2/10/11 9:55 a.m. The Hawaii state House of Representatives, on a voice vote Wednesday, approved House rules that allow it to continue its tradition of invocations before floor sessions.
The new rules will not be posted until Thursday at the earliest, but here’s a paraphrase of what the section regarding invocations will say, according to the House:
At the option of the Speaker, prior to the convening of any session, there may be an ecumenical invocation by a member of the House. Any invocation by a House member or non-member shall be limited to two minutes, should be nonsectarian in nature. Attendance at or participation in the invocation shall be voluntary.
UPDATE The final rule reads as follows: “At the option of the Speaker, prior to the convening of any session, there shall be an invocation. Any invocation shall be limited to two minutes, and should not be used to proselytize, advance, or disparage any religion or point of view. Attendance at and participation in the invocation shall be voluntary for all persons.”
Why did the House choose a different path than the state Senate, which chose to end mandatory invocations Jan. 20?
First, because it can.
The new House rules were written to comply with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of prayers before legislative bodies.
Second, the House operates under different rules than the Senate.
The rules that applied during the last two sessions of the House and until the new rules were adopted Wednesday simply gave the House speaker the option to open with an invocation. The Senate rules, until mention of invocations was left out of the new rules, made them mandatory.
Third, the House does not face a lawsuit, as the Senate does, that calls for ending invocations and also asks for compensatory damages involving an incident last April when two protesters were forcibly evicted from the Senate when they tried to interrupt the invocation.
Fourth, the House’s new rules would seem to comport with the request by the ACLU of Hawaii that lawmakers develop guidelines that ensure invocations to not favor one religion over another — a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Fifth, the House’s eight Republicans were involved in keeping invocations.
Immediately after the House vote Wednesday, Minority Leader Gene Ward released a statement that said in part, “The rules language closely mirrors suggestions made by the eight members of the House Republican Caucus.”
Ward added: “Our caucus feels very strongly about preserving the tradition of the invocation before our floor sessions. To get rid of the tradition would be a disservice to our state and national heritage.”
“This First Amendment practice began with the first Continental Congress (1774), and today, the 200-year-old tradition is still considered valid based on the foundation established by the first legislators,” Minority Floor Leader Kymberly Pine said in the same statement.
After the vote, Ward walked across the House chamber and shook hands with Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, an attorney who took the lead in crafting the new rules.
Sixth, the House has the same key leadership as it did the last two years — Oshiro, Finance Chair Marcus Oshiro and Speaker Calvin Say. Say likes invocations and has been known to insert references to God in his speeches.
Indeed, the House has continued to have invocations, most of them by lawmakers. On Wednesday, for example, Democrat Faye Hanohano gave an invocation in the Hawaiian language.
The Senate, by contrast, has new top leadership, and despite the efforts of Democrats like Will Espero and lone Republican Sam Slom, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient critical mass to keep the invocations in that chamber.
(Espero and eight other senators held a brief and private prayer on the Senate floor before session began Jan. 26. But there are 25 members in the Senate.)
While Slom said this week that his office has been hearing loudly from constituents upset with the end to invocations, things have been much quieter at the offices of President Shan Tsutsui and Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria.
The Senate could always changes its rules, although that usually only happens at the beginning of a new two-year period. And, technically, there is nothing in the rules that prevents invocations per se.
For now, however, Hawaii’s Senate will remain the only legislative body in the nation to formally end invocations.
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