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GOP state rep invokes Jesus 13 times in prayer before Muslim colleague from Philly is sworn in

The question of who should be allowed to deliver the opening prayer has been the subject of a federal lawsuit.

The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read moreAP

HARRISBURG — A controversial Christian prayer delivered in the House of Representatives earlier this week — just before the chamber’s first Muslim woman was sworn into office — has reignited a years-old debate about who should deliver the opening invocation and how.

On Monday afternoon, Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, a Republican from Clinton County, spoke for just under two minutes and mentioned Jesus 13 times, at one point describing him as “our only hope” and professing that as a nation, “we’ve lost sight of you.”

She also briefly referenced Israel, President Donald Trump, and Gov. Tom Wolf, among others.

Near the end, Borowicz said: “Every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord.”

Someone yelled, “Objection!” and she concluded the prayer and left the podium.

Her prayer came a short time before Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Democrat from Philadelphia, was sworn in, using the Quran that belonged to her late son. She won a special election March 12.

“That wasn’t a prayer,” Johnson-Harrell said Wednesday. She initially wasn’t fazed. She said she was raised to bow her head, show respect, and stand, noting that her mother exposed her to different religions.

But when Borowicz began referencing Trump and Israel, something changed, she said.

“At that point, I’m saying, ‘This ain’t a prayer, this is a political statement masked as a prayer.' It felt intentional, and it felt planned,” Johnson-Harrell said.

Then, she said, she began worrying about the 55 people — including some of her relatives — who were in the chamber that day for her swearing-in. The prayer, she has said, was “Islamophobic, xenophobic, and absolutely degrading” and should have been stopped earlier.

She was far from alone in her outrage. The prayer drew criticism from people both inside and outside political circles.

Wolf said he was “horrified” and apologized to Johnson-Harrell. Several Democratic state representatives said they, too, were offended and struggled to remember another prayer like it being recited on the House floor, where a prayer is said at the beginning of every session day.

Like Johnson-Harrell, Tokunbo Adelekan, an associate professor of theological ethics at Palmer Theological Seminary in St. Davids, questioned whether Borowicz’s invocation can even be described as a prayer.

“Is it Christian language, or code language? She’s not so much worshiping as waving to a group of people. It’s almost like her audience is not God,” Adelekan said.

Borowicz’s primary offense was “not so much” mentioning Jesus repeatedly, said Zain Abdullah, an associate professor of religion at Temple University. It was the state representative’s use of the Christian savior to politicize religion and promote an agenda that was offensive, Abdullah said.

“Jesus Christ is revered by Muslims,” Abdullah said. He is mentioned more than 30 times in the Quran. “You can’t be a Muslim and not believe in Jesus.”

But the substance of that belief differs markedly from Christian theology. Although Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, they do not believe that he was the son of God to be worshiped.

For Muslims, Jesus was a man, the son of Mary, and one of the most important prophets in a long line that begins with Adam and ends with Muhammad, said Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, education and outreach director at the Philadelphia branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Borowicz did not respond to a message left in her Capitol office.

This is not the first time the centuries-old tradition of an opening prayer for legislative sessions has caused contention in Pennsylvania.

In 2016, a group of atheists and self-described nonbelievers sued the speaker and others in the House, saying they believed they had been improperly barred from offering the invocation.

“There is just one significant difference between people whom the defendants allow to give opening invocations and the plaintiffs: the former believe in God, while the plaintiffs do not,” an attorney for the group wrote in a complaint in a federal lawsuit filed in Harrisburg.

A federal District Court judge sided with the group, and House leaders have appealed the decision to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Arguments have not yet been scheduled in the appeal case.

The House’s operating rules list a prayer at the beginning of the “daily order of business.” They do not specify who will give the prayer or how. Currently, representatives take turns delivering the prayer.

After Borowicz’s prayer, House Speaker Mike Turzai invited one of Johnson-Harrell’s guests to recite an Islamic prayer during her swearing-in ceremony, according to several people familiar with the situation. The prayer, delivered from the same rostrum where Borowicz had said hers earlier in the day, lasted about a minute. Her guest chose the first Surah in the Quran — a prayer known as the Al-Fatiha.

“The significance of the Al-Fatiha is that it is the beginning,” Johnson-Harrell said. “This was a new beginning for not only me as a new state representative, but for the commonwealth."

At some point, Turzai also reminded representatives that they should aim to deliver a prayer that is suitable for all faiths. He cited the chamber’s guidelines.

“The Members of this House come from a wide variety of faiths,” those written guidelines say. “We believe it’s important to respect this diversity. Your efforts to deliver an inter-faith prayer are greatly appreciated.”

The next day, State Rep. Jason Dawkins, a Democrat from Philadelphia who is Muslim, offered the opening prayer for the House. He translated into English the verses from the Quran that had been used during Johnson-Harrell’s ceremony.

“Praise belongs to God, God of all works,” Dawkins recited. “The world of mercy, the giver of mercy, master of the day of judgment, it is you we worship, it is you we ask for help. Guide us to a straight path, the path of those you have blessed.”

A day later, Johnson-Harrell spotted Borowicz in a Capitol hallway. They hadn’t yet spoken. Borowicz dropped her gaze as the two approached each other, Johnson-Harrell said.

“I stepped in front of her,” Johnson-Harrell said. She said she introduced herself, said she looks forward to having a conversation, and received a hug from Borowicz. As of Wednesday evening, the two hadn’t scheduled a time to talk.