I’m an elected official: I don’t want to listen to religious sermons

In March, the Secular Values Legislative Caucus (SVLC) of the NH House made a simple request to the Speaker of the House, Sherman Packard. In view of the highly-evangelical prayers to which house members have been subjected during his tenure, we requested a secular invocation. Since a 2015 Gallup Poll indicated that only 20% of New Hampshirites identified as highly religious, approximately 70% of Americans no longer attend church, and 51% indicate they have no religious affiliation, we felt this was not an unreasonable request. But apparently it was.

As Chair of SVLC I wrote “In the spirit of diversity and inclusion the NH Secular Values Legislative Caucus requests that a secular invocation be considered for the session to be held on March 31, 2022. It is my understanding that a member of the House is interested in preforming this secular invocation. I am unfamiliar with how the House chooses one for the invocation but would be happy to assist in any way.”

When the Speaker asked if I had a name in mind and I answered, I received the following from House Clerk, Paul Smith:

“I have spoken with the Speaker who asked me to inform you as to House practice and procedure.

First, our rules of procedure in the NH House (Rule 58 (a) 1), specifically calls (sic) for prayer to be delivered by the House Chaplain or substitute designated by the Speaker. Beyond that, it is practice and custom; prayer has been delivered in every legislative session since the 1680s with our provincial legislature.

When the Chaplain is unavailable, we have guest chaplains appointed (which was my request) to deliver prayer.

Prayer is in itself ‘religious’ and a secular invocation is not, however prayers are strictly to conform to no particular faith doctrines (which is why we have entertained guest chaplains from a variety of faiths). I’d also note that courts have upheld religious prayer in legislative chambers several times, (two, just as recently as 2019).

Those offering prayer in the House have been through training (either ordination, scholarly, certification, etc.) and before their service as chaplains are given strict instructions to follow (such as not praying “in Jesus’ name”), because the institution has always understood that there are members with little, some, great, or no faith.

I questioned the term sermon as sermons are derived from specific dogmatic texts and are generally considered lengthy; by our practice, legislative prayer does not extend beyond two minutes.

That being said, I do not believe that Speaker has ‘denied’ your request, but wanted explained what the procedures are in terms of how to accommodate your request.”

To say that my request wasn’t denied is questionable since the SVLC was offering a “Chaplain”, Harvard no less, who was willing to give the opening prayer in a secular format. And, as an aside, if prayer must by definition be “religious” again as noted in the Clerk’s response, how does that meet the needs of those who are non-religious? In fact, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition, a prayer can be defined as “an earnest request; entreaty; supplication”. Religion is NEVER mentioned in the definitions and God is only given as an example of to whom the prayer is given.

Although under previous speakers House members have been allowed to give the invocation, call it a prayer if one wishes, apparently this tradition no longer holds since this representative didn’t meet the “qualifications” of a minister. Even though as noted above “the institution has always understood that there are members with little, some, great, or no faith”. So how does an evangelical minister meet the needs of one of “no faith”?

The roadblocks continued. When Harvard Chaplain Greg Epstein, an atheist/humanist, agreed to do the invocation, he was disqualified because he didn’t “live in NH”.

When SVLC stated that a NH Humanist with the “qualifications” required could be located, miraculously the House chaplain, whom we have rarely seen, if at all, since Speaker Packard was elected, was available to do the “prayer’ for the remaining House sessions. As it turns out, this “House Chaplain” is the speaker’s evangelical church chaplain. The one who received many complaints from the start about his “sermonizing”. In the meantime, a Rabbi also miraculously appeared to give the opening prayer which those in attendance said was a sermon. The timing was amazing since ALL the prayers have been led by Christian ministers.

The Speaker of the House is tasked with meeting the needs of ALL House members, not just those religiously affiliated. To say that a prayer during a government meeting is not a sermon, is like saying that discussing legislation at the pulpit is not political. I don’t expect to hear prayers in a public building and I assume that those who attend church services don’t expect to hear political speeches.

All of this matters more now than ever because of the rise of Christian Nationalism and its determination to impose its will on the majority. I see it in legislation all the time: the passage of enabling legislation that allows public schools to imprint the motto “In God we trust” on their walls and legislation giving tax breaks and tax dollars to religious schools.

Like those who profess a religiously-based faith, humanists/non-believers/agnostics have a belief system too. It’s one based in science and humanity rather than dogma; a belief that we are here to do good and take care of each other since it is the only life we have; the freedom to live our lives as we wish as long as it doesn’t harm others.

For centuries Christian Nationals, evangelicals, and those religiously devoted have controlled the narrative that to be religious is good and is the norm and, if one is not religious there is something wrong and evil about them. Not only has that narrative never been true, it is now time for all of us who believe that the separation between church and state is one of the backbones of a democracy, to stand up for the secular society we claim to be and that the majority say they want, and stop the intrusion of religion into our public life.

Sherry Dutzy is a State Representative for Hillsborough District 6, Nashua Ward 3, and is on the Environment & Agriculture Committee.