OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House and Senate both begin each legislative day with a prayer led by a chaplain sponsored by individual members.
However, a new rule prohibits members of minority religions from serving as chaplain of the day in the House, members of the Islamic community and others said Friday.
A letter addressing the House’s Chaplain of the Day/Week Program for 2018 states, “We do ask that the Chaplain be from the Representative’s own place of worship.” The letter is signed by Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks, who is the chaplain coordinator in the House.
Adam Soltani, executive director of CAIR Oklahoma, said since there are no House members of the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or several other minority faiths, the rule prevents people who practice those religions from participating in the chaplain program.
The letter from Strohm says requests for exceptions would be handled on an individual basis.
Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, said that last year he nominated Imam Imad Enchassi, senior imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. An imam is a leader in the Islamic faith.
Dunnington, who is not Muslim, said Strohm turned down that request.
“The basis for the denial was based on false, anti-Muslim allegations stemming from Islamphobia that have targeted the Imam and the Muslim community for years,” Soltani said.
Dunnington said he has Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists as constituents.
“If we are going to have a chaplain program that allows for ministers of varying faiths and traditions to bless the process during session, what am I to say to my constituents that practice a different faith than me — that they shouldn’t have someone from their own faith recognized? That is not OK. That is not democracy. It is discriminatory,” he said.
Strohm, R-Jenks, did not respond to two phone calls seeking comment.
Jason Sutton, a spokesman for House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, did not respond to requests for comment.
Ryan Kiesel, ACLU of Oklahoma executive director, said the requirement is not a constitutional criteria for selection to serve as chaplain. He said there is no rational basis for tying the faith of a lawmaker with the faith of the clergy or speaker they are sponsoring.
“If that policy continues to be implemented in that manner, it is certainly susceptible to a (legal) challenge,” Kiesel said.
People should not be surprised if a lawsuit protecting religious liberty is filed in the near future, Kiesel said.
Sheryl Siddiqui, Islamic Council of Oklahoma chairperson, said lawmakers represent people of all faiths.
Oklahoma lawmakers have a history of antagonizing the Muslim community.
Last year, the head of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, his organization and a well-known spiritual leader were called terrorists during a House interim study they attended sponsored by Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw. Bennett has said Islam is a cancer that needs to be cut out of the nation.
In 2010, lawmakers put State Question 755 on the ballot. It barred the courts from using international law or Islamic Sharia law, something which wasn’t being used in Oklahoma courtrooms.
It passed by more than 70 percent of the vote, but was struck down following a legal challenge from the Islamic community. It was determined to be an unconstitutional infringement on individual rights. It cost the state in excess of $300,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.
In 2013, organizers of an anti-terrorism seminar held in the House chamber attempted unsuccessfully to prevent Soltani from attending. It was initially billed as open to the public. Soltani said the speakers were anti-Muslim.