Bonoff Objects to Religious Prayer, Now Says Issue Resolved

In March Sen.Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) wanted to make it rule, not just policy, that prayer in the Senate chamber be non-denominational. Now the Senator has an update. See video of the prayer and of Senators' reactions to it.


"We have a long-standing Senate tradition of doing opening prayers in the Senate Chamber on session days. This week, a controversial clergyman gave a prayer on the Senate floor that did not follow our Senate tradition that prayer be non-sectarian, so that all feel included. This prompted a response from me. I asked our Senate President to affirm our Senate tradition and use her role to make certain our visiting clergy understand that.

"My statement was countered by a response from a colleague who stated that, while it was Senate tradition, it was not in the rules and therefore was not something that needed to be enforced. Following this exchange, a media flurry ensued that has taken me by surprise. An AP reporter led with an inflammatory headline, “Senator wants Jesus out of the Senate.” That headline garnered the attention of news outlets all over the country, fueled by the fury and power of the internet.

"The issue has been resolved, and we are keeping with our traditions of sending a letter to all clergy requesting that their prayers be non-sectarian. If you followed any version of this story and were left with a sense that I had offended you in some way with regard to your faith, please accept my apology. That was not my intention. I have great reverence for the importance of faith in our lives, in our community and in our world."


A debate over prayer and its place in Minnesota's state Legislature is heating up at the Capitol and it’s Minnetonka’s own state senator,  who is at the heart of the fight.

Sen. Bonoff (DFL- District 43/Minnetonka) said on Tuesday that she wants it to be not only a standard policy, but also an enforced rule, that any prayer said in the Senate chamber be non-denominational in nature. 

“We have a policy at the Minnesota Senate that says the prayers must be non-denominational [and] I want to make sure that it's crystal clear,” she told Minnetonka Patch on Tuesday. 

The move comes less than 24-hours after Baptist pastor Dennis Campbell delivered the standard invocation that opens every Senate and House floor chamber session, during which he referenced Jesus and Christ-concluding the invocation with, "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ our savior, we pray."

Bonoff immediately responded to the prayer, which she called “inappropriate” and “uncustomary” by publicly calling on President of the Senate Michelle Fischbach (R- District 14/Stearns County) to enforce, going forward, the Senate tradition which restricts any prayer said in the chamber from including specific religious references.  

"But she did not affirm that she would do that,” Bonoff said. “She gave a rather weak response.”

Senator David Brown (R- District 16/Becker) emphatically disagreed with Bonoff, telling those present in the Senate chamber, “It’s not in the rules, it’s tradition. And when we invite clergy to pray, they should have the right to pray however they chose to pray no matter what their beliefs are.” 

Bonoff is concerned that unless the policy is concretely laid out and the Senate leadership commits to enforcing it, the blurring of the lines between religion and government, which she said played out during Monday’s invocation, may continue.

“I’m concerned the new Republican majority is not clear about the constitutional separation between church and state.”

Bonoff told Minnetonka Patch that she plans to ask Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R-District 19/Wright County) to not just request of speakers that their invocations be non-denominational, but to go a step further and also require it. If Koch refuses, Bonoff said she would introduce an amendment to chamber rules, which will definitively outline an interfaith policy.

Bonoff, who is Jewish, insisted that this issue is not about faith, but the law: "This is a constitutional issue. It's black and white."

Calls to Sens. Fischbach and Koch and an email to Pastor Campbell for comment have not been returned. 

Fred Houts March 17, 2011 at 03:04 AM
The Bible says "Whatsoever you ask IN MY NAME" shall be done unto you." So wouldn't one expect a Christian to pray ". . . in Jesus' name, Amen."? Sen. Bonoff needs to get her theology straight if she wants to challenge the prayer practice. Prayer is not intended to be for the "tickling of the ears of the listeners." Prayer, by definition, is talking to God. A Christian minister should be expected to mention Jesus by name in his prayers. A non-sectarian prayer is a misnomer for it is "empty words" -- not truly prayer at all. --Fred Houts, Brooklyn Center
Linda March 18, 2011 at 04:36 PM
Why would an Islamic prayer offend anyone? An Islamic prayer is a prayer to God and no one else. Muslims do not pray to Prophet Muhammad. Let me tell you our equivalent of the Lord's Prayer. In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful. Praise be to God the cherisher and sustainer of the world. Most gracious, most merciful, master of the day of judgement. Thee do we worship and thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way. The way of those upon whom thou hast bestowed thy grace. Those whose portion is not wrath and who go not astray. In what way should this offend anyone? Islamic prayers are appropriate for just about any faith. I believe the same can be said about Jewish prayers. A prayer should be for everyone present.
Charlotte Smith March 19, 2011 at 05:37 AM
What about freedom of speech? This is ridiculous and I am proud of Pastor Campbell. I think I country needs a lot more leaders like him!
Eric Jaffa April 08, 2011 at 04:22 AM
Legislators shouldn't be inviting clergy to their workplace to pray in the first place. People in the private sector manage to do their jobs without clergy praying near them first. Some Minnesotans are atheists. This is endorsing religion. The government should be neutral towards religion.
Michael O October 20, 2012 at 07:56 PM
Although I am Christian and a pretty deep one, I do not believe there should be opening prayers in the government. If people want to pray before and after a session, I support that wholeheartedly. And, maybe even more to the point, what people do when in session tells more about their faith than prayers made in public. And for those who are considered conservative Christians who think that all "liberals" are anti-religious, I support you doing whatever you wish to do outside of the sessions.


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