State rep’s prayer stirs passions
Was a freshman legislator’s prayer to open the March 25 state House’s legislative session a rookie mistake or an intentional anti-Muslim takedown?
As with many religious controversies, it is all in the eye of the beholder. For her part, state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton and Centre counties, said she is not going to apologize for what she said, noting that this is how she always prays. She said the prayer was not intended to offend any other religion.
Others criticized her remarks as out of line and offensive, especially since this was the session in which the first female hijabi Muslim member of the state House was going to be sworn into office.
“This was pure and simple a weaponization and political takedown,” said Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh. “It was vile and ugly,” he added.
Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, found the prayer to be offensive to her beliefs as a Muslim. “Jesus is respected in Islam, but to use Jesus as a weapon is not OK,” she said. Johnson-Harrell also criticized Borowicz for politicizing the prayer, which applauded the president’s support of Israel.
“It was directly a political statement, and I think we need to be very, very clear that everybody in this House matters, whether they’re Christian, Muslim or Jew, and that we cannot use those issues to tear each other down,” Johnson-Harrell said. A Muslim imam offered a prayer prior to Johnson-Harrell’s swearing-in.
Schlossberg, who is Jewish, found Borowicz’s words to be highly political and out of place for the occasion. Rep. Kevin J. Boyle, D-Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, walked off the House floor in protest. “This fire and brimstone Evangelical prayer … epitomizes religious intolerance,” he said.
Near the end of her nearly two-minute prayer, several representatives could be heard yelling “objection”; others can be heard snickering. This prompted House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, to touch Borowicz on the arm in a tacit attempt to get her to conclude her prayer.
Turzai called on legislators to remember to deliver an interfaith prayer when speaking from the House floor. “As you are preparing your thoughts, we’d ask that you craft a prayer that is respectful of all religious beliefs,” said Turzai in a gentle rebuke of his colleague.
State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill and Carbon, had a somewhat different reaction. “Religious freedom reigns in Pennsylvania and the people’s House,” he said. “Prayers have opened House sessions since the very first meeting in December of 1682. I support these opening prayers as well as the members who offer their thoughts.”
Knowles questioned people’s sensitivities. “Isn’t it time for people and House members to stop looking for reasons to be offended, end the constant divisions and come together to celebrate the religious diversity we have?” he asked.
Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, characterized Borowicz as having “lots of energy and being passionate about her beliefs and faith.”
While conceding that he would not have gone this route, Heffley said he did not consider the prayer to be offensive, saying that people pray differently. He said there were two prayers in the chamber that day, and he stood respectfully for both. “It’s a super sensitive time,” Heffley said.
So why are legislators saying these prayers and not guest chaplains, as was previously the case? The Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Association sued the House leadership in 2016 for refusing to allow atheists and agnostics to give the opening message. Speaker Turzai decided last summer to appeal the ruling, but in the meantime would use House members on a rotating basis to deliver invocations.
Drew Crompton, an aide to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, defended the concept of an opening prayer, because, he said, it offers a “quiet moment” before the start of business.
The U.S. Supreme Court Supreme upheld legislative prayer as constitutional in the 2014 case Greece v. Galloway in New York state.
Borowicz is the first woman to represent the 76th District. In 2018, she defeated Democrat Michael Hanna Jr. by about 1,600 votes. Borowicz ran in 2016 but lost to Hanna’s father by about 1,100 votes. The senior Hanna served 14 terms in Harrisburg before retiring last December.
Borowicz is a 1995 graduate of Altamonte Christian School in Florida. She is a 1999 graduate of Vanguard University in Orange County, California, whose stated mission is “to pursue knowledge, cultivate character, deepen faith, and equip each student for a Spirit-empowered life of Christ-centered leadership and service.” She majored in liberal studies with a minor in biblical studies.
A stay-at-home mom before her election, Borowicz is married to Jason Borowicz, associate pastor at Crossroads Community Church in Williamsport.
So what did Borowicz say that caused such controversy? Here is a sampling. “Jesus, we’ve lost sight of you. We’ve forgotten you, God, in our country, and we’re asking you to forgive us, Jesus. That we’re blessed because we stand by Israel, God. Jesus, you are our only hope. At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord.”
In the heated aftermath of Borowicz’s prayer, she and Johnson-Harrell expressed interest in meeting with each other. Nonetheless, Johnson-Harrell recommended that her colleague be censured for the prayer, but most observers believe this is unlikely in the Republican-dominated House.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org