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AUGUSTA — Just about every session of the Maine Legislature begins with a prayer to a higher power.
In many cases, that higher power is God or Jesus. But this week, Thomas Waddell of Litchfield was hoping to deliver a different kind of message before the Maine Senate. Rather than invoke a spiritual deity, Waddell was going to ask the senators to look to each other for the strength to fulfill their shared, constitutional duties.
But last week, Waddell says, he was informed that his May 30 reading had been canceled and that Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, would be reviewing its contents when the 128th Legislature ends.
Now, Waddell is questioning just how separated the church and state Legislature are in Maine. Based on what a Senate administrator told him, he thinks some lawmakers objected to his invocation in February and advised Thibodeau to reconsider the invitation.
“My take is, Senate President Mike Thibodeau is doing this just as a stalling tactic,” Waddell said. “He personally is not comfortable with having someone who is not clergy get up there in front of the Senate and not reference God or Jesus in their invocation, and that’s the bottom line.”
Waddell, who is president of the Maine chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, also called Thibodeau’s decision to “censor my words … fully and totally illegal.”
But the Senate President has a different take.
According to a letter Thibodeau sent to Waddell on Friday afternoon, Thibodeau has concerns about Waddell’s conduct toward Senate Secretary Heather Priest in a conversation he had with her.
Thibodeau said Priest indicated Waddell’s version of events “does not fully and fairly reflect your conversation with her. She has also advised me that you were confrontational with her and that you (were) verbally aggressive, demanding that she comply with your instructions, and concede to your account of the conversation you had with her.”
Thibodeau said he would reserve judgment about whether Waddell could give the invocation at a later date.
Another letter emailed Friday from Rebecca S. Merkert, attorney for the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, to Thibodeau says the organization sees this as “a serious constitutional violation.”
Merkert maintains, “Mr. Waddell is being forced to meet requirements that others are not. Requiring him to submit his remarks for review and approval is a constitutional violation. First, disparate application of rules based on your perception of Mr. Waddell’s religion is illegal. Second, when the government allows invocation speakers to deliver remarks, the government cannot censor or approve invocations based on their viewpoint.”
Merkert asked that Waddell “be invited back to give his remarks on Tuesday.”
Prayers have been read during federal and state legislative sessions ever since the U.S. Congress was formed in 1789, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Even though the practice would seem to violate the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and government, it was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983, in the case Marsh v. Chambers, and 30 years later in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway, said Zach Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
Following the second case, Heiden said, the court “essentially expanded the ability of legislative bodies to engage in legislative prayer.”
But the court also indicated several ways that prayer could violate Establishment Clause, including a pattern of denigration of other faith systems, whether in the prayers themselves or in the decisions of legislative officers about which prayers to allow, Heiden said.
Heiden declined to comment on the merits of Waddell’s complaint, but said he doesn’t think a secular invocation is any different from a religious prayer, legally speaking.
Priest did not return a call seeking comment last week. But in her initial invitation to Waddell to deliver the invocation, she seemed receptive to the idea.
“On behalf of Senate President Michael Thibodeau, I want to thank you for your willingness to deliver the opening prayer in the Senate,” she wrote in May 10 letter. “Out of respect for the diversity of the religious beliefs of the Senators, a brief prayer that is non-sectarian and non-political would be appreciated.”
But according to Waddell, Priest called him last week to inform him the reading was canceled and, because of the length and content of his February reading, that Thibodeau would need to review its contents.
In that February invocation, Waddell told House members that each “was elected to represent the interests of a diverse community in terms of age, socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and religious beliefs or secular principles. Representing diverse constituents requires one to be truly inclusive and tolerant.”
To help Mainers find “economic opportunity, decent housing, good schools and a health care system that meets the needs of all people,” he asked the lawmakers “to put aside any personal and political differences in these divisive times and to work together for the benefit of Maine as a whole. I ask you to use facts, reason and logic, tempered with compassion and empathy, in making your decisions, today and every day. I ask you to discard partisan dogma and to weigh, without bias, the merits of the various proposals being made, and to refrain from denigrating persons with whom you may disagree.”
He closed by reading a Buddhist homily.
Waddell was invited to read his invocation in the Senate after making a request to Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, former executive director of the ACLU of Maine, who passed it along to Priest.
Now, he’s hoping that Thibodeau will reconsider his decision to cancel the May 30 reading. He also said he’s hoping to get a better explanation of the reasons it was canceled.
He doesn’t think any part of it falls astray of the Constitution, and he pointed to the decision in Greece v. Galloway to explain why he thinks Thibodeau’s decision might constitute censorship. He also questioned whether Thibodeau or other lawmakers were resistant to allowing a message that wasn’t Judeo-Christian to be read in the State House.
In a written statement, Bellows said she has not been involved in the conversations with Priest and Thibodeau, but expressed hope they could reach a civil resolution that would allow Waddell to go forward with his invocation.
“Delivering the invocation before the Senate is an honor that should be bestowed upon Mainers of all faiths, or those of no faith at all, without discrimination,” Bellows said.
Charles Eichacker — 621-5642