OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s House speaker said Wednesday he plans changes to a program in which pastors deliver prayers and sermons to legislators amid criticism from interfaith leaders and some members that non-Christians are being denied an opportunity to participate.
House Speaker Charles McCall said the plan is to align the program with those of the U.S. House, which has a chaplain who delivers a daily prayer and also coordinates a guest minister program for visiting clergy.
“The reason we’re looking at pivoting in that direction is that it’s been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said McCall, R-Atoka. “We know that approach is non-discriminatory.”
Interfaith leaders in Oklahoma are particularly upset at a decision by Rep. Chuck Strohm, tapped to lead the House chaplain program, to first deny a local Muslim imam an opportunity to serve as minister in the House and then to change the rules of the program to allow only ministers from a member’s “own place of worship.”
“One can only guess that yet another change to the program, not even a month into session, has something to do with the audacity of the interfaith community to question it in the first place,” said Shannon Fleck of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches.
Strohm, R-Jenks, did not respond to telephone and email messages to his office on Wednesday.
Rep. Jason Dunnington, who requested Imam Imad Enchassi of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City deliver the daily prayer, criticized Strohm for discriminating against non-Christians.
“If Rep. Strohm can’t get over his own personal agenda, then he needs to step down from the program and allow someone else who can fill that position in a way that represents all Oklahomans,” said Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City.
McCall said he expects to select a chaplain from the Capitol Commission, a North Carolina-based nonprofit group whose mission is to “reach the Capitol community for Christ, one person at a time, to disciple them, and to prepare them for a lifetime of ministry.” That organization already has an Oklahoma minister who conducts weekly Bible studies at the Capitol.
Controversies over chaplains and daily prayers are nothing new at statehouses across the country. An atheist member who delivered an opening prayer in the Arizona House two years ago infuriated some Republicans when he didn’t pray to God, prompting them to call on a Baptist minister to deliver a separate prayer. A guest chaplain in the Kansas Legislature years ago angered some members when his session-opening prayer included abortion and tolerance for homosexuality on a list of the state’s sins.
Legislative bodies in at least 19 states have a designated chaplain, while chambers in most states, including Oklahoma, use visiting chaplains, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The flap over Oklahoma’s chaplain programs reignited last week after separate ministers delivered fiery sermons on the House and Senate floors.
In the House, several members grumbled about a lecturing and criticizing five-minute prayer delivered on the House floor by Dr. Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University who drew national attention two years for a letter he penned to his students titled: “This is not a day care. This is a university.”
And in the Senate, Fairview Baptist Church pastor Bill Ledbetter suggested in a nearly 17-minute sermon that gay marriage and “immorality” was to blame for recent school shootings and natural disasters. That prompted criticism from Senate Democratic leader Sen. John Sparks, who called Ledbetter’s remarks “hateful” and demanded an apology.
A Senate spokesman said leaders are not planning any changes to its pastor-of-the-day program, which is administered separately, although he said all guests of the Senate, including pastors, are expected to “uphold and maintain Senate decorum.”