A chaplain program at the state Capitol is being changed once again, this time to follow a model used by the U.S. Congress.
In a prepared statement distributed Tuesday, Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks, who oversees the House Chaplain of the Day/Chaplain of the Week Program, said the program will transition to what he described as a constitutionally sound model similar to the congressional chaplain program. Under the congressional program, members of the U.S. House vote for a chaplain and members of the U.S. Senate vote for a chaplain who can, in turn, oversee the selection of guest chaplains.
“The House of Representatives will transition its Chaplain Program, effectively immediately, to a model similar to that used by Congress,” Strohm said in his prepared statement. “The congressional model has previously been deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Recently, the state Capitol program came under fire from some members of the Oklahoma interfaith community after Strohm changed the program in January in a manner they said effectively kept out non-Christian spiritual leaders. At that time, Strohm had issued new program guidelines saying that the chaplains could only be selected from the predominantly Christian legislators’ own houses of worship. The matter had become an issue after Muslim leader Imad Enchassi said his application for the program was denied.
Monday, about 50 people attending the Oklahoma Conference of Churches’ Day at the Legislature event visited Strohm’s office to inquire about the change made in January. Enchassi said Strohm told him and and other interfaith leaders that he would be issuing a statement that would address all of their questions.
Tuesday, Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said Strohm’s statement was vague and did not address the questions that interfaith leaders asked him.
“This statement makes things worse because it does not address the current problem of discrimination against certain clergy, it does not address why my application was denied and it’s a cowardly way out,” he said.
The Rev. Shannon Fleck, community engagement director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said she also heard Strohm say that his forthcoming statement would address interfaith leaders’ concerns.
She said she was disappointed that the statement doesn’t address the interfaith community’s concerns.
“If anything, it limits it even more. It limits it to one Christian so there’s not even diversity of Christian thought now,” she said. “In his statement, he says there’s precedent for it but were’e still talking about people’s voices being shut out here.”
Rabbi Abby Jacobson, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma, said the chaplain program’s pending alterations are “frustrating.”
“This does not feel like a step forward. This feels like a very crafty way of sidestepping the rights of religious minorities in Oklahoma,” said Jacobson, spiritual leader of Emanuel Synagogue.
“If the congressional model works, the U.S. Congress is a more diverse group, partially because of geography and partially because there are more legislators. I am not confident that our state legislators are going to elect a chaplain who will choose faith leaders from outside the majority and that is going to leave out non-Christian traditions.”