Faith leaders are looking for answers after a Republican legislator issued guidelines that could block a large swath of the state’s religious community from leading lawmakers in prayers that kick off each day of the legislative session.
Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks, who is the Oklahoma House of Representative’s chaplain coordinator, sent a letter at the beginning of the year asking that legislators only nominate a faith leader from “the representative’s own place of worship” to be the House’s Chaplain of the Week or Chaplain of the Day.
Strohm’s letter, obtained by Oklahoma Watch, states the program is “not a platform for personal agendas, but an opportunity to ask for God’s wisdom and to speak blessing and hope over those who are often overwhelmed by the many voices that are converging upon them.”
But the apparent restriction on who may lead the prayer during the daily address has prompted concerns that many religions would be left out since the House of Representatives is heavily dominated by members of the Christian faith.
Shannon Fleck, director of community Engagement for the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, a group that represents 600,000 members from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Episcopal and historically black churches, said the policy is troubling since she is not aware of any Muslim or Jewish lawmakers.
She said many Christian dominations also have little or no representation.
“By limiting legislators to pull from their individual faith traditions for legislative chaplains, the opportunity has been stripped from our elected officials to have any exposure to the vast and beautiful religious practices that make up this great state,” she wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to Strohm. “Additionally, those who practice religions other than the majority in Oklahoma, are being told their voice does not matter, their religion is less important, and they are being actively and succinctly shut out.”
Fleck said it possible that the policy – one she wasn’t aware of previously – was in response to a legislator nominating Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City Imam Imad Enchassi to be Chaplain of the Day last year.
Fleck said she has heard “various excuses” why Enchassi’s chaplaincy request was not approved last year, but there hasn’t been an official response.
Calls to Enchassi, Strohm and House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, were not immediately returned Friday.
House rules state that the chaplain must attend the start of each day’s session of the House and open with a prayer. Chaplains also are given up to five minutes during the Thursday session to deliver remarks.
Strohm’s letter explaining the program says chaplain requests will be processed as they are received and “scheduling and participation will be based on a first come, first serve basis.” He additionally writes that requests for exceptions to the guidelines will be “handled on an individual basis.”
Mayflower Congregational Church Rev. Lori Walke, who is on the board of directors of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation of Oklahoma, said even a suggested policy can have a chilling effect on the voices lawmakers hear.
Walke said she has concerns whether it’s proper for religious leaders of any sect leading a legislative body in prayer to start the session in the first place. But, she said, if the program does exist, it should be inclusive as possible.
“Right now they are really limiting what voices can be heard, even among Christians,” she said. “But there are many voices and faiths that deserve to be heard.”