By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — In the Legislature, the calm before a stormy floor session is usually found in the invocations.
These prayerful passages at the start of proceedings offer lawmakers a moment for meditation and contemplation before they dive into the day’s testy political duels.
Most deliverers — be they a pastor, a rabbi, an imam, a tribal leader or even a lawmaker — cause no fuss in their brief appearance at the rostrum of the Senate or House of Representatives.
On the first day of this year’s session, Jon Sanne, pastor of Olympia’s Calvary Chapel caused bowed heads to rise in the Senate by praying that God encourage lawmakers to “strengthen marriage as you ordained it for our good.”
Those words didn’t sit well with some Democratic senators who knew Sanne fought against legalize marriage for same-sex couples. They felt he had crossed the line aimed at keeping politics out of the ceremonial opening.
“The invocation is meant to be inclusive of all and is not intended to provide a platform for political views,” Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who invited Sanne, said when he learned of Democrats’ duress he asked around to learn what was said to upset them.
“I do not screen or censor pastors on prayer,” he said.
Such dust-ups are a rarity for a practice that is not required by law but rather is done out of tradition dating back to the early days of statehood.
In the House, the Office of the Chief Clerk schedules presenters. In the Senate, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor handles that task.
Each invite gets a letter with guidelines on how to conduct themselves and be mindful of the varied faiths and beliefs of lawmakers, employees and anyone who might be seated in the galleries.
“The purpose of prayer in the opening ceremonies is to seek guidance and to provide for contemplation, inspiration and reflection; it is not meant for entertainment, proselytizing or persuasion,” reads the letter.
But officials say they have no control over what someone will say when they get to the microphone.
If what they say triggers a firestorm and lawmakers complain, they’re not likely to be invited back, said Brian Dirks, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.
Speakers are chosen in various ways. House and Senate staffs compile lists of faith leaders willing to do it. Lawmakers submit names of religious and spiritual leaders from their districts that they’d like scheduled.
Lawmakers themselves also do them.
Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, who does them frequently, said he speaks from the heart and doesn’t prepare his comments beforehand.
Often, he gets little advance notice. If he only gets 10 minutes’ warning, “it’s instant prayer,” he said.
The Rev. Dan Sailer, pastor of Stanwood United Methodist Church has done an invocation in the Senate in each of the last four years.
Because of the setting, he said, it’s “a little more nerve-wracking” than a Sunday sermon.
“I find it a very special moment because these people are making decisions for our whole state,” he said. “I just remember they are people who are doing the best they can and that is what my prayers are for.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.