Ohio House Removes Restraints on Opening Prayers

Speaker Husted rules that prayers will not be censored.

Columbus, OH — Pastors invited to deliver the invocation at sessions of the Ohio House of Representatives may pray in Jesus’ name.

That is, at least as long as Speaker Jon Husted (R-Kettering) remains the leader of that legislative body.

In a memo to the House Clerk made public last week, Speaker Husted (pictured, right) announced that he was reversing a policy established in a May memo from the House Clerk. That memo required Guest Ministers to submit a written copy of their prayers 72 hours prior to the session day on which they were scheduled to pray.  It also stated that if leadership of the House judged a submitted prayer to be of a “denominational, sectarian or proselytizing nature,” the Guest Minister would be asked to make appropriate changes.

The House Clerk’s May memo was issued in response to a complaint from House minority leader Chris Redfern (D-Catawba Island Township) and Rep. Robert Hagan (D-Youngstown), regarding an opening prayer delivered by Pastor Keith Hamblen, a guest of Rep. Matt Huffman (R-Lima).  The two Democratic representatives objected to Pastor Hamblen’s praying in Jesus’ name and to his reference to specific legislation that was to be voted on that day.

Because Sub. S.B.16 (the Community Defense Act) was one of the three bills to be voted on that day, several members of CCV’s staff were present in the House chamber on May 16, the day Pastor Hamblen delivered that invocation.

“Pastor Hamblen spoke from his heart in a very sensitive and respectful manner,” recalled Jerry Lyon, CCV’s vice president of operations.

“I was shocked to learn that two members objected and actually walked out during his prayer,” said Lyon.  “There was nothing in his prayer that could be interpreted as advocating a particular position.  Pastor Hamblen simply named the three specific bills to be voted on that day and appropriately asked, ‘Give them the wisdom to discern on these things.'”

Concerned that the House Clerk’s May memo placed an unhealthy and possibly unconstitutional restraint on prayers offered in session, Rep. Diane Fessler (R-Bethel Township) sought an opinion from Mike Johnson, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund.

Johnson replied with a model prayer policy and a nine-page opinion letter outlining the history and constitutionality of legislative invocations.  Fessler then shared that letter and policy with the entire House membership.

During the summer recess, Speaker Husted carefully considered the policy and on September 10 issued the memo just made public:

Throughout the past few months, I reflected and prayed upon an issue of great importance, one that has weighed on my mind and heart and one that must be addressed as we return to our work here in the House – the issue is that of protecting prayer. After thoughtful deliberation, including the consideration of hiring a House chaplain, I have determined that our current guest minister program is working quite well. As the Speaker of the Ohio House and the leader of this esteemed chamber I will not allow for our prayers to be censored – prayer is a time of reflection and guidance, a time which should not be governed by political advocacy or personal opinion. Our moment of prayer prior to each House session is a legislative tradition and I stand at the ready to protect this institution. As such, while the Ohio House of Representatives is under my leadership we will not censor the content of prayers given prior to a House session. Please implement this policy immediately.

We applaud and thank Speaker Jon Husted for establishing a policy that is consistent with our Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religious expression, and with an important tradition that dates back to this country’s Founding Fathers.

We encourage you to express thanks to Rep Fessler for her leadership, (phone 614-644-6008, e-mail district79@ohr.state.oh.us) and to Speaker Husted for his courage and wisdom in taking the correct action (phone 614- 466-8114, e-mail district37@ohr.state.oh.us).