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U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black. Credit: Drew Angerer, New York Times

 

By Karl Kurtz

Legislative chaplains seldom make news. Today's New York Times features not one, but two, stories about prayers in legislatures. The first is an engaging profile, "Give Us This Day, Our Daily Senate Scolding," about Barry C. Black, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate. A Seventh Day Adventist and former Navy rear admiral, Black recently prayed in the midst of the government shutdown:

Save us from the madness.... We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.

Black, who has been the Senate chaplain for 10 years, comments about his role, "Remember, my prayer is the first thing they hear every day. I have the opportunity, really, to frame the day in a special way."

The second story is about Town of Greece v. Galloway, the case of a small town New York board meeting that starts each session with a prayer by a chaplain that is before the new term of the U.S. Supreme Court. Some residents of Greece are offended that the "chaplain of the month" is almost always a Christian and say that the practice violates the Constitution's prohibition against establishment of religion by government. The precedent in this case involves a 1983 decision, Marsh v. Chambers, in which the Court, overruling several lower court decisions, ruled that the Nebraska Legislature had the right to hire a chaplain and open legislative sessions with a prayer because such ceremonies were "deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country."

 

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Nebraska Sen. Ernie Chambers

Ernie Chambers, the legendary and long-sitting (1971-2009) member of the Nebraska Senate who originally brought the case challenging the Senate's prayers, returned to the Senate in 2013 after sitting out for four years in accordance with Nebraska's legislative term limit requirement.

 

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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