BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – In response to the American Civil Liberties Union threat to bring a lawsuit against the Hawaii State Senate for its long-standing tradition of opening each legislative floor session with an invocation, Hawaii State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa formed a three-member Senate committee to review the practice.
In a letter last week, the ACLU cited “Christian” prayer and any reference to “Jesus Christ” at the legislature.
In the past, brief remarks have been made at the opening of every Senate and House floor sessions by a variety of religious and community leaders as well as lawmakers and their staffers. The remarks have ranged from prayers to poems that have lasted even less than a minute to more than five minutes.
In a response to the ACLU, Hanabusa issued a letter pointing out that all denominational view points have been represented.
She says her committee will include Senate Vice President Russell Kokubun and Senate Majority Policy Leader Les Ihara, both Democrats, and Senator Sam Slom, Republican minority leader. The committee meets for the first time on Monday, September 20, at 3 p.m. at the Hawaii State Capitol.
The ACLU isn’t the first challenge to this practice in Hawaii.
In the waning days of the 2010 legislative session, Honolulu activist and atheist Mitch Kahle disrupted two of the invocations from his position in the Senate gallery and was subsequently removed by capitol security. He had threatened lawsuits against the Honolulu City Council and state Legislature for opening prayers. The city council subsequently changed its procedure allowing opening prayers.
Though the ACLU cites legal cases to back up their claims that Jesus Christ should not specifically be referenced on government property, the U.S. Congress opens each session with a prayer and in fact, have a paid chaplain on staff. “Under God” in the “Pledge of Allegiance” and “In God We Trust” referenced on U.S. currency, have withstood court challenges.
Most of the ACLU victories have come from governments and organizations backing down with the threat of legal action rather than victories in the courts.
SEE THE ACLU LETTER HERE:
SEE SENATE PRESIDENT COLLEEN HANABUSA’S RESPONSE HERE:
Reach Malia Zimmerman, editor of Hawaii Reporter, at Malia@hawaiireporter.com