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Legislators offended by opening prayer


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- First the minister prayed that God would instill in lawmakers "the desire to protect the unborn, those babies being carried by women all over the state of Florida." Then he spoke of the sanctity of marriage, "in your design from the Word of God, one man and one woman for life." He closed "in the precious name of the Lord, Jesus Christ."

The Rev. Darrell Orman had barely finished delivering the prayer opening Thursday's House session when the complaints began.

Her arms spread in a "Y" above her head, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a pro-choice, Jewish Democrat from Weston, headed for the podium.

"What is this?" Wasserman Schultz angrily asked Republican House Speaker John Thrasher.

The references to such politically divisive topics as abortion and how to define a marriage also offended Christian lawmakers who do not necessarily share those political views.

"I'm Catholic ... but that was inappropriate," Rep. Ed Healey, a Democrat from West Palm Beach, said afterward. "I heard it, and I said the only thing we need now is a fistfight and we'll have a complete day."

House policy requires that all prayers be non-sectarian. Guidelines are given tolegislators who invite visiting ministers such as Orman, who leads First Baptist Church of Stuart.

The rules say that public prayer should use "language and shared symbols which are acceptable ... and not offensive." Public prayer "is not an occasion for preaching or testifying to the public," and the person leading the prayer "should be especially sensitive to expressions that may be unsuitable to members of some faiths."

But despite the clear guidelines, periodically ministers cross the line, and the debate over how to handle prayers in the Legislature is reignited.

In 1997, Republican House Speaker Dan Webster's pastor incensed some Jewish lawmakers by mentioning Jesus Christ in a prayer. Less than four months later, a minister invited by Senate President Toni Jennings referred to Jesus Christ as "the only God" and assailed abortions, saying "We have murdered almost 40-million unborn babies." Webster, who is now a state senator, led a prayer in the Old Capitol last October that referred to Christ.

Thrasher said Thursday that he had spoken to Rep. Arthur Argenio, R-Stuart, the first-year lawmaker who invited Orman. He also said he would send out a reminder to lawmakers that the House has guidelines on prayer.

"From time to time that's happened, and it's regrettable," Thrasher said. But he added, "I'm not going to screen prayer -- I believe in prayer."

Wasserman Schultz said she was satisfied with Thrasher's response "as long as it doesn't continue to happen." She said Argenio apologized to her after he was told to do so by the House leadership. But she said when she first approached Argenio to express her distaste, he responded by saying, "Now I know I did the right thing."

Argenio, an anti-abortion conservative, acknowledged saying something to Wasserman Schultz "that wasn't as elegant as I would have liked," but said he had apologized and declined to be more specific.

He was unapologetic about the prayer, however.

"I wouldn't apologize for what he said -- it was a sincere prayer," Argenio said. "I hope the other members would respect this prayer just as I would respect the prayers of other ministers or rabbis."

He said those who support abortion rights should "consider the sanctity of life when making those choices."

Asked if he would find it offensive if a visiting minister prayed that lawmakers would protect women's right to choose, Argenio paused.

"I would probably shrug my shoulders and say, "I don't think God's going to answer that one,' " he said.

-Staff writer William Yardley and staff photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report.

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