A chaplain is a clergy member or lay representative of a religion trained to serve a secular institution like a hospital, prison, school, police department, sports team, or parliamentary body. A chaplain can come from any faith or no faith—such as a humanist chaplain—but that doesn’t mean they’ll be allowed to lead prayer for the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Like chambers in most states, Oklahoma has had visiting chaplains provide an opening prayer Monday through Wednesday with additional remarks on Thursday. Any member of the House could propose a guest chaplain. This system was going fine until May 2017, when Rep. Chuck Strohm, chaplain coordinator in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, rejected Rep. Jason Dunnington’s invitation to Imam Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. The Imam is a well-respected member of the community and has previously given prayers at government meetings, including the invocation before an Oklahoma City Council meeting, so he was certainly qualified.
No official explanation was provided, although Strohm did put out a letter in 2018 addressing his updated House Chaplain of the Day/Week Program that stated: “We do ask that the chaplain be from the representative’s own place of worship.” This means only Christian chaplains can participate as there are currently no legislators of other faiths. The letter stated twice that chaplains should not use the platform to advance their personal or political agendas, which is interesting because Strohm’s proposed policy sounds like he’s promoting his own Christian agenda over religious diversity.
Some legislators doubted the policy would be enforced and still planned to nominate chaplains outside their faith, such as Imam Enchassi. On Monday, February 26, fifty local interfaith leaders, accompanied by the Oklahoma City chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK), went to the Oklahoma Capitol to confront Strohm about his policy. Instead of talking with them, Strohm released a statement the following day about a new change to the program:
The House of Representatives will transition its chaplain program, effectively immediately, to a model similar to that used by Congress. The congressional model has previously been deemed constitutional by the US Supreme Court. Those members of the clergy who have already been submitted and approved to serve as chaplain under the old system will be allowed to provide the invocation for the House this session on the dates they have been approved for. Through the end of the 56th legislature, the House will utilize one individual to serve as chaplain of the House, to be appointed by the speaker of the House.
By emphasizing that this new format is deemed constitutional, Strohm and House Speaker Charles McCall are trying to validate their decision to place a permanent Christian House chaplain in charge (most likely from the Capitol Commission, a North Carolina-based Christian nonprofit). Since 1789, Congress has been served by chaplains of different faiths—mostly Roman Catholic and Presbyterian but not exclusively—and welcomes House members to recommend guest chaplains from any background—as approved by the House chaplain. Another Supreme Court decision that Strohm should consider is that invocations in the form of sectarian prayers at local legislative meetings are permitted so long as everyone can participate, even an atheist (Town of Greece v. Galloway).
Oklahoma is the eighth most religious state in the US—tied with Georgia—according to the Pew Research Center. However, as seen throughout the country, the “nones” are growing. Adults in Oklahoma are about 79 percent Christian, 18 percent unaffiliated/none, 2 percent non-Christian, and 1 percent answer “don’t know” when asked about religious affiliation. “Regardless of differing beliefs, our goal should always be to strive for inclusiveness, peace, and love,” said Rep. Cyndi Munson. “Oklahomans come from many faith backgrounds, and no faith backgrounds at all, so it is imperative that we allow that representation at the State Capitol. This place is the people’s house, therefore all are welcome at all times.” Munson joined Dunnington and Rep. George Youngin criticizing the changes to the House chaplain program for eliminating daily chaplains and discriminating against religious representation.
This controversy begs the question: Why are there prayers at the beginning of government meetings at all? This isn’t a church, it’s a government building. Legislators don’t need to restore their faith in God; they need to restore people’s faith in democracy by working together and being productive. Instead of religious prayer, they could have a moment of silence, an uplifting song, an inspiring quote, or even a motivational statement. Anything that helps attendees wake up and focus on the rest of the proceedings. In other words, do their job.
One thing that absolutely won’t help legislators do their job is a long-winded sermon. Thursday, March 1st was “devotional day,” meaning the “Chaplain of the Day” may speak for longer than the usual five-minute limit. Pastor Bill Ledbetter spent sixteen minutes preaching about how God gives us gifts (like popcorn, soda, warm towels, Jesus, and America), and how this nation was founded on Christian sermons. He discussed the evils of political correctness (“a bankrupt philosophy called secularism that is expressed as political correctness… a form of tyranny that always creates a double standard”), and how God may be punishing us with hurricanes and shootings because of our immoral activity:
Do we really believe that we can create immorality in our laws? Do we really believe we can redefine marriage from the word of God to something in our own minds and there not be a response? Do we really believe that we can tell God to get lost from our schools and our halls of legislation and there be no response?
Several senators walked out and others expressed their disgust, demanding an apology from Ledbetter and more respect from future chaplains. Senate president pro tempore Mike Schultz said he did not believe the comments were hateful, but promised to “maintain the decorum of the Senate.” Ledbetter shared a very similar sermon in 2012, so why was he invited back?
The Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma and other interfaith groups hosted a press conference on March 7th to fight the discriminatory chaplain policy. Strohm has not commented on Ledbetter’s sermon or the interfaith leaders’ stand. Rev. Shannon Fleck, community engagement director for the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, puts it best:
We know that there are big issues for the legislature to be dealing with at this time and this does not need to be one of them. This is an easy solution. The interfaith community stands here ready to talk, ready to be a part of any process and ready to work together to be inclusive of everyone.