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Man vs. God's Laws 

by NATHANIEL HOFFMAN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & E & lt;/span & very day in the Capitol, broadcast over loud speakers, you can hear prayer. Sometimes it's the House chaplain recalling the travails of Daniel or dipping into a New Testament reflection. Or maybe it's the Senate's pastor asking for divine guidance in matters of state.

In the Senate last week it was, "... in the name of the great physician who came with healing in his hand."

And then, coming from the House side, "We do all these things in Jesus' name..."

The vast majority in the Idaho Legislature and in legislative bodies across the country remains vocal about their belief in prayer. But the tradition of legislative prayer, while long and well documented, is one that the Constitution merely "tolerates."

A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld legislative prayer in Nebraska saying, "To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."

According to those same, er, activist justices, it is fine to spend taxpayer money on two Christian pastors so that they may tend to their legislative flock with a daily public display of Jesus affection. Because that's what's always been done.

Rep. Sue Chew, a Boise Democrat, is a Buddhist who relies on prayer to get through her days. Like one day last week when a simple Medicaid bill was killed for narrow ideological -- perhaps religiously motivated -- reasons.

Chew says it is difficult for her to sit through the House's exclusively Christian prayers, but she is reluctant to say anything. She believes that House Chaplain Rev. Tom Dougherty means well.

"I see his smiling, joyful face and I don't know that he'll get what I have to say," Chew says.

Dougherty, in his first year as House chaplain, is a pastor at Cloverdale Church of God in Boise.

"They don't have to listen," Dougherty said when asked if he has any reservations about offering Christian prayers to a public audience that includes non-Christians.

At least two senators are not as forgiving as Chew. Elliot Werk, a Boise Democrat, and Chuck Coiner, a Twin Falls Republican, have had a word with Senate Chaplain David Goebel in the past. They asked him to remember his audience is not uniform in belief.

"I kind of appreciate it as long as it's done in a respectful manner to people of all faiths or of no faith," says Coiner, an Episcopalian by marriage.

Coiner says that the daily invocation -- the second order of business in both the House and Senate -- is a time to think of colleagues in distress, to remember manners, to slow down.

"I try to use word pictures and metaphors that I can connect with as a Christian but also are open for other people," says Goebel.

Hence the great physician in the sky. Still, Goebel considers his posting at the Annex to be part of his ministry.

"It's a very different kind of ministry than being a pastor in a local church," Goebel says. "I'm used to being very clear and direct about who I am, what I stand for, where I'm coming from."

Some lawmakers skip the prayer session, scooting into their seats in time to speechify and vote. Some adjust the angle of their laptop screens so they can read e-mail while everyone tucks chin to chest in a show of spineless conformity.

The public encouragement of religion, no matter how vague or poetic, is troubling to civil libertarians like Jack Van Valkenburgh, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

"Anytime the government is promoting a religion it's undermining the freedom of religion in my view," Van Valkenburgh says. "And to encourage a particular religion or a particular set of religions is particularly offensive."

The 1983 Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Chambers, rested on the fact that within three days of appointing a committee to hire Congressional chaplains in 1789, the First Congress approved the Bill of Rights, including the Establishment clause.

But in carving out a First Amendment exception for legislative bodies, the justices failed to apply the Lemon test -- assuring that a law or action has a legitimate secular purpose, neither advances nor inhibits religion, and doesn't result in "excessive entanglement" of government and religion. It's the method that all courts use to determine church-state violations.

"I have no doubt that, if any group of law students were asked to apply the principles of Lemon to the question of legislative prayer, they would nearly unanimously find the practice to be unconstitutional," wrote Justice William Brennan in his dissent to the Marsh ruling. Three justices dissented.

Every legislature in the union does prayer in one form or another, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most states pay their chaplains. The U.S. Congress hires chaplains and pays them like ad execs.

In the end, all Idahoans go to the halls of government to seek redress. Most say they embrace God. Many really do. Some tolerate it. But how many stay away because their views are excluded every morning during the second order of business?
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