the offensive word in my prayer

This morning our local newspaper ran this article about my refusal to take the “offensive word” Jesus out of my prayer to open the State House as a Guest Chaplain this week. In case you-all hear about this little thing and need to defend it, here it is. I hope I have honorably defended my best friend – and represented you-all well. This was not done to sir up trouble, but to respectfully stand up for Jesus in the public square. I hope it comes off that way. -Gerry

Local pastor’s prayer rejected by House

Gerry Stoltzfoos, of Freedom Valley Worship Center, was told to remove the word “Jesus” from his planned prayer.

Gerry Stoltzfoos is a man of faith – but not the type who preaches constantly with in-your-face theology. Even the Gettysburg church where he serves as lead pastor is designed more as a gathering hall than as a shrine full of religious imagery.

But when it comes to prayer, Stoltzfoos is steadfast in his approach of speaking directly to and addressing by name the Christian God he worships.

“I think prayer is talking to God, so when I pray, I try to talk to him,” said the pastor of Freedom Valley Worship Center.

However, that principle clashed recently with a new policy of Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House, Keith McCall, D-Carbon County.

And two local legislators are speaking out against the policy – which requires the Legislature’s guest chaplains to first submit their prayers in writing and then, if deemed necessary, agree to change their words to meet “non-denominational” guidelines established by McCall’s staff.

That, Stoltzfoos said, was simply not something he was willing to do when instructed by a member of McCall’s staff to remove the word “Jesus” from the prayer he submitted and had planned to recite at Tuesday’s session.

“I feel very deeply offended by them asking me to pray but not allowing me to pray in the name of my God,” Stoltzfoos said. “We seem to believe in individual freedoms, but then we cut off those freedoms when they become individual.”

Stoltzfoos was invited recently by state Rep. Will Tallman, R-Reading Township,


to open Tuesday’s session of the House with a prayer. The pastor said he prefers to pray without a script, so the requirement of a prior was submission was “already pushing pretty far past my comfort zone.”

But he complied with that request.

Then, in an e-mail, a McCall staff member said the prayer “looks good” but that the word “Jesus” cannot be used in a non-denominational prayer.

Stoltzfoos ultimately declined the invitation rather than remove the phrase “In Jesus’ name” from the prayer’s conclusion – the only place Jesus’ name is used.

“First of all, I don’t see how Jesus is denominational. The whole Christian world is called after him,” he said. “I just feel like if you want me to pray, then I have to pray to the one thing I know. I only know one God personally. I only serve one God. How do I do something that dishonors him?”

The policy, however, is not an attempt to silence religious leaders but rather an effort to prevent taxpayers from having to foot the bill of a lawsuit if someone objects to a prayer’s contents and chooses to sue the state, said McCall spokesman Bob Caton.

“Unfortunately, it’s because states like Indiana and Ohio have been sued,” Caton said. “We’ve followed the example that unfortunately was set in other places. We’re bringing Pennsylvania’s practices in line with what other states have done.”

The policy – not yet three months old – requires guest chaplains to submit their prayers in writing beforehand and to omit references to specific religious figures like Jesus, Yahweh or Allah, he said.

“We ideally want to have as varied a group as possible,” Caton said. “We just have them operating under these stipulations. It does come with certain guidelines that were thrust upon us basically.”

Caton added that Stoltzfoos is still welcome to serve as guest chaplain “under the guidelines.”

Traditionally, the office of the Speaker of the House coordinates the prayers – held, along with the Pledge of Allegiance, at the beginning of each day the House is in session.

Legislators, like Tallman, can nominate individuals to serve as guest chaplains.

Tallman said he invited Stoltzfoos because he respects him both as a man of God and for his service as president of the New Oxford Borough Council.

“He’s involved, and he’s always impressed me with that,” Tallman said.

As for what transpired, the representative said he believes “some of the leadership is probably not respecting diversity.”

“Why is somebody from the speaker’s office going to pre-approve a prayer by a man of God?” Tallman asked. “They’re putting themselves in a pretty interesting position there.”

He also said he does not believe concerns over potential lawsuits are legitimate, though he declined to comment further as to why.

State Rep. Dan Moul, R-Conewago Township, said he too objects to the prayer policy.

“I personally don’t think it’s reasonable because our country was founded on Christian-Judeo beliefs. That’s who started our government,” Moul said. “We should never be ashamed to speak about our Christian beliefs. That’s what our prayers are for.”

Moul said he supports the right of legislators of all religious backgrounds to invite clergy in as guest chaplains. Legislators have the ability to leave the floor if they find the content of prayers offensive, he said.

“I am extraordinarily tired of the vast majority changing our way of life to accommodate a few,” Moul said.

In his years as a legislator, Moul said he has heard a rabbi offer prayers, “and I don’t understand hardly a word he says.”

“That’s what they believe in. That’s wonderful. That’s freedom. That’s what we’re here for,” he said.

As for the lawsuit argument, Moul said simply: “Let ’em sue us.”

Tallman said he plans to organize a bi-partisan group of legislators displeased with the new policy and propose an alternative that could satisfy both sides of the issue.

“We think we need to have a more balanced look at this issue,” Tallman said.

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