A Wiccan priestess from a Unitarian church in Cedar Rapids is scheduled to give the opening prayer in the Iowa House of Representatives a week from today. Deborah Maynard recently told KCRG Television that when she got the invitation, her first thought was: “How are people going to react?”
“I didn’t really think that it was that big a deal,” Maynard told KCRG. “…The most research I did, I found it’s never been done in a state government body before by a Wiccan.”
The Wiccan religion was founded in England in the 1950s and it’s based on pagan beliefs and rituals. Chuck Hurley, a former legislator who is now vice president of The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization, said some legislators tell him the situation makes them uncomfortable and they may get to the capitol a bit late next Thursday, to avoid being in the House when Maynard speaks.
“We have religious freedom in this country, but it works both ways,” Hurley said. “You can’t be forced to participate in something that violates your conscience.”
Both the Iowa House and Senate begin their workdays with a prayer or some sort of moment of reflection. Some prayers are delivered by legislators themselves, but often legislators invite a guest to make the remarks. Representative Liz Bennett of Cedar Rapids invited Raynard to the House next Thursday. Bennett told KCRG she did it to show “how diverse Iowa really is.”
“It’s not about endorsing one religion over another,” Bennett told KCRG. “It’s about the fact that the Iowa statehouse is the people’s house and there’s room for everybody under the dome.”
Yesterday Bennett invited a rabbi from Cedar Rapids to give the opening prayer in the House. Invited guests who give the prayers in the House are asked to be brief and “sensitive to the personal beliefs of all members.” The prayers also are to be “free of political references” and guests are asked not to use their minute behind the microphone to advocate for or against issues pending in the legislature.
In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “sectarian” prayers before government meetings are constitutional, as long as the prayers are “not coercive” and do not require participation by people who do not share the same beliefs.