TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–Florida Senate President James E. “Jim” King apologized to members of the legislative body April 28 after Florida Baptist pastor Clayton Cloer invoked the name of Jesus in his prayer in the Senate chamber as guest chaplain of the day.
The apology by King, a Jacksonville Republican, resulted in media coverage of the incident across the state, while the pastor of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando insisted that his prayer was consistent with guidelines given to guest chaplains.
In the 526-word prayer, Cloer mentioned Jesus twice — in the context of thanking God for the religious freedom “to believe in Jesus Christ” and concluding the supplication “… in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
As Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D.-Pembroke Pines) rose to object to the prayer, Senate President King prevented her from speaking, and after the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance told the body, “To those of you who were offended or feel hurt, I personally apologize.”
Although Wasserman Schultz never spoke publicly to the matter, it was widely perceived that her objection — as a Jewish member of the Senate — related to Cloer’s use of Jesus in the prayer.
Indicating that offensive prayers have been offered “three days in a row,” King told the senators that guest chaplains have been “told to make a non-denominational prayer. I recognize that some of our Jewish members take offense to some of the things that were included in the prayer. All I can assure you is that we will intensify the language that we give to each minister, each priest, each rabbi before they come here and we would hope that in good diligence to what is about this body of different faiths, different ideas, different nationalities that those wishes would be respected.”
Serving as guest chaplain for the day at the invitation of Sen. Daniel Webster, R.-Winter Garden, who is a member of First Baptist Church of Central Florida, Cloer told the Florida Baptist Witness he was attempting to do three things with the prayer — praise the Lord, give thanks and make certain requests.
Although he was not surprised “that there is some slight controversy” about the prayer, Cloer said, “I’m shocked that the president of the Senate would choose to apologize for the prayer that I prayed.”
Cloer also insisted that he was careful to observe the guidelines for prayer.
According to a copy of the letter from Secretary of the Senate Faye W. Blanton to Cloer obtained by the Florida Baptist Witness, the guidelines — drawn from the National Conference for Community and Justice — call for prayer that:
— seeks the highest common denominator without compromise of conscience;
— calls upon God on behalf of the group as a whole and avoids individual petitions;
— uses forms and vocabulary that allow persons of different faiths to give assent to what is said;
— uses universal, inclusive terms for the deity rather than proper names for divine manifestations. Some opening ascriptions are “Mighty God,” “Our Maker,” “Source of All Being,” or “Creator and Sustainer.” Possible closing words include “Hear Our Prayer,” “In Thy Name” or simply “Amen”; and
— remains faithful to the purposes of acknowledging divine presence and seeking blessing; not preaching, arguing or testifying.
Cloer noted that the guidelines protect the compromise of conscience and that his conscience requires that he pray in Jesus’ name. He said that the prayer was corporate in nature, as stipulated by the guidlines, while also making his own petition in Jesus’ name.
The prayer concluded: “We pray these things in the wonderful, matchless name, the great name of our God and Savior. I pray them in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
Explaining why he must pray in Jesus’ name, Cloer told the Witness, “The only reason God hears me is because of the work of Jesus Christ, because of His high priestly work of allowing me to come into the Holy of Holies…. Secondly, Jesus said, ‘if you ask anything in My name,’ that He’s going to answer. So, when I pray, I pray in His name. That’s what He taught us to do.”
Although Cloer used a few notes to direct the content of his prayer, he said the prayer was not written out and was mostly extemporaneous.
Webster agreed with Cloer that his pastor did not violate the Senate’s prayer guidelines. Webster told the Witness that the controversy is nothing new to him. As Speaker of the House, Webster invited several ministers who invoked Jesus’ name in their prayers, including Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright.
“At that time I said I’m not going to censor prayers,” Webster said. “People should be able to pray in Jesus’ name. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing wrong with saying the name Jesus Christ in public.”
Cloer said the controversy — and especially King’s apology — indicates that there has been a “successful movement in America to secularize every aspect of public life and that secularization is beginning to take root in the minds of leaders in our state legislatures, even those leaders who may have Christian views.”
A Southern Baptist minister who works with legislators told the Witness that the opposition to the use of Jesus’ name in the Senate has caused him to decline invitations to pray in the upper chamber of the Florida legislature.
Tim Ireland, chairman of the Christian Leadership Council, a private, nonprofit organization that offers spiritual guidance to members of the legislature, legislative staff and lobbyists in Tallahassee, said Senate leaders “didn’t want me to use the ‘J-word.'”
Ireland is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives from Fort Myers/Naples.
Cloer became pastor of First Baptist Church last fall, coming from a Southern Baptist church in Memphis, Tenn.
The same day that the Cloer controversy erupted in the Senate, Southern Baptist author Rick Warren prayed in the Florida House, without incident. In his 236-word invocation, Warren prayed, “as these legislators returned to their home districts, I have some personal requests for them …” and concluded, “In Your name. Amen.”
In an e-mail interview with Florida Baptist Witness, Warren was asked if he declined to use Jesus’ name in the prayer because of stipulations from House leaders or whether he typically closes prayers with “in Your name.” Warren responded, “No one gave me any instructions on what to pray or what not to say…. I always end my prayers with, ‘In Your name,’ or ‘In Jesus’ name,’ as the Bible teaches.”
Cloer said the controversy will not prevent him from accepting invitations to pray at future civic events, as long as there are no limitations on invoking Jesus’ name.
“If somebody says I cannot pray in Jesus’ name, I don’t pray…. To me, it’s a way of denial and accommodation for me to allow somebody to dictate how I talk to God. That’s an imposition on my freedom, even if it is public. As long as I can balance that with my conscience, I will continue to pray publicly.”
James A. Smith Sr. is the executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness. To read the entire prayers of Cloer and Warren, go to the Witness website, www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.