REPUBLICANS who insist they are the best choice to run Oklahoma’s government do themselves no favors when they manage to mishandle something as simple as who gets to say the daily prayer, as is happening in the state House of Representatives.
For years, members have brought clergy to the Capitol to serve as “Chaplain of the Day” or “Chaplain of the Week.” The man or woman offers a brief prayer at the start of the session Monday through Wednesday, and on Thursday delivers a short message in addition to the prayer.
At times through the years, members have griped about ministers’ messages becoming too political — it happened in the Senate one day last week — but generally the program has been controversy free. Not this year.
In January, Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks, issued new guidelines for the program. Chief among them was that clergy selected “be from the representative’s own place of worship.” Given the makeup of the House, this edict essentially ensured that only Christians would be eligible.
Members of other faith groups complained, with good reason. Carl Rubenstein, a Jew who is immediate past president of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma, called it “a travesty” and “an insult to the entire interfaith community.” Democratic members of the House also objected.
In response, Strohm issued new guidelines last week — and made things not much better.
He announced that the House would immediately move to a program modeled after the chaplain program used by Congress. There, each chamber selects a chaplain, who in turn can select others to stand in when necessary.
Strohm noted that this model “has previously been deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court,” which is another way of saying he’s finished dealing with it.
For dates that haven’t yet been reserved for this Oklahoma House session, the House will use an individual chosen by the leadership. Faith leaders are concerned this new tweak will do little, if anything, to increase the likelihood that a non-Christian will be invited to take part. The Rev. Shannon Fleck with the Oklahoma Conference of Churches says that, “If anything, it limits it even more.”
Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, who is himself a retired pastor, joined other Democrats in criticizing Strohm. “I have grave concerns with the direction this program is headed,” Young said.
Generally, politics is at the root of one party’s criticism of the other, and there is certainly some political hay to be made in this case. Yet the criticism is warranted. By retooling the program, House Republicans are promoting a closed-mindedness that reflects poorly not only on them but on the state. Oklahomans are better than this.
It’s certainly possible the person chosen by leadership will be open to broadening the scope of the program. If not, then House Speaker Charles McCall should scrap the revisions and return the chaplain program to one that makes it more likely, not less, that a variety of faith traditions will be represented.