By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — Spend any time in the Mississippi Capitol and there’s a good chance someone will pray for you and your kin, as well as for the governor, the legislators and other state leaders.
There’s no shortage of religious expression in the seat of state government.
When legislators are in session, they begin each day with an invocation, often made in the name of Jesus. Prayers in the House and Senate usually are given by an in-state Christian clergy person. Occasionally, a rabbi is invited to give a blessing. Sometimes the lawmakers themselves lead the prayer.
Lawmakers frequently cite Scripture during debates on issues ranging from marriage to the death penalty.
Many Capitol staffers display framed copies of the phrase, “In GOD We Trust,” donated several years ago by the Tupelo-based American Family Association.
The Senate had an unpaid chaplain in 2011, but that position has been eliminated.
This year, four Republican senators proposed creating a Legislative Prayer and Ministry Caucus.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 505 was sponsored by veteran Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall and freshman Sens. Phillip Gandy of Waynesboro, Angela Burks Hill of Picayune and Sean Tindell of Gulfport.
The resolution said the purpose of the caucus would be “to encourage, train and support legislative leaders in every field who believe in the power of prayer and ministry, and to highlight the vital role that prayer and Judeo-Christian principles have played in the history of our Nation and our state in strengthening the fabric of our society, at all times consistent with the progress of our state and with the well-being of our fellow Mississippians.”
Without debate, the Senate sent the resolution back to the Rules Committee this past week — a procedural move that quietly killed the resolution, if not the idea.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Brown, both Republicans, were quick to say the Senate wasn’t being anti-religious. Rather, they said there was simply no need for the resolution.
Legislators and staffers already have voluntary prayer groups that meet regularly. And, legislators don’t need their colleagues’ permission to form any kind of caucus.
Reeves said he and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, would issue a proclamation expressing support for a Capitol prayer group.
Brown said there was no consensus in the Senate about establishing a prayer caucus. Some senators privately expressed concerns that a prayer caucus could be turned toward partisan purposes. Resolutions are seen as more binding than proclamations, so leaders found a way to say they like prayer without making anyone vote on a resolution that made them uncomfortable.
The Senate chaplain in 2011 was the Rev. Ben James, pastor of Prentiss Baptist Church. He was chosen for the job by Republican Phil Bryant, who was lieutenant governor at the time and is now governor.
Republican Billy Hewes of Gulfport, president pro tem last term, told his colleagues in January 2011 that the Senate needed a chaplain because: “Our Christianity is under attack and I think this is a way for us to make a statement that faith in our lives is very important.”
At the time, Hewes was embarking on a campaign for lieutenant governor. Months later, when Hewes and Reeves were in a heated race for the Republican nomination, James used Senate chaplain letterhead as he publicly endorsed Reeves — an endorsement Reeves’ camp said he did not seek.
Fillingane, who is friends with James, said this past week he saw no problem with the endorsement, even on Senate letterhead.
“I don’t think you check your citizenship rights at the door when you do the Lord’s work,” Fillingane said.
Legislators in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and other states also open daily sessions with prayer.