As with other important values of freedom and equality, our country was founded upon the idea of tolerance. One of the most significant facets of our American values is acceptance of people from all backgrounds — and both recognizing and celebrating our differences. As Gov. Neil Abercrombie said in his first State of the State address, “Our diversity of beliefs and background does not divide us, it defines us.”
Sadly, some legislators are overlooking that for fear of a lawsuit. The Hawaii Senate is the only state legislative body in the entire country to have eliminated invocations — and it may happen next in the House of Representatives. Before we end invocations, though, it’s important that we understand the implications.
The likelihood of a successful lawsuit is actually quite low. Indiana once banned the practice but a higher court later determined it to be constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the use of invocations is both legal and constitutional. And Congress has begun its sessions with an invocation since its conception without a successful lawsuit ending the practice.
Invocations are chosen by each member of the House on a rotational basis so all are represented, mirroring both the diversity of Hawaii constituencies and those of the nation. By reading a prayer or non-religious statement aloud, the leader in no way compels all listeners to be followers of that religion or makes any statement that assumes that they are.
Before I became a representative, I had never heard a Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon or atheist prayer. Invocations inspired me to use my turn to invite speakers that would showcase different religions within my district and understand the varying viewpoints of my constituents.
The ACLU referenced a complaint that some prayers mention Jesus Christ and Christianity. Of course some do! But invocations also represent many other religions and non-religious speakers from the community to speak on a range of inspirational topics.
In the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
How can this Act and the First Amendment apply to everyone in this country, but not inside the state Capitol? Why would we want a citizen to have the right to practice and speak about any religion he or she chooses out on the street, but lose that right within these walls? These values of diversity must apply in our government with even more conviction than anywhere else.
Jefferson opposed a government that interfered in religion for fear that government would adopt one faith as it did in England, thereby limiting the freedoms of others. The state Legislature has made it a practice to allow all religions and non-religions to participate in invocations and, of course, has never attempted to adopt one belief over any other. By banning invocations, the Senate imposed one man’s atheism on all of us and denied free speech.
We would lose some of our American identity if we were to ignore our varied backgrounds — that’s in the very make-up of our country. Our government should be an example of the tolerance this country was founded on — not an escape from it. After all, acknowledging our differences is not the same as pretending we don’t have any.