Buddhist prayer opens state Senate to show diversity

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg, November 28, 2007

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (USA) -- A Buddhist leader, making a first-ever appearance before the state Senate yesterday, said he's OK with opening legislative sessions with a prayer as long as leaders of all faiths get a chance to speak and they don't try to proselytize.

Anthony Stultz of Harrisburg, who for 20 years has been a Buddhist "sensei," meaning "venerable priest or teacher," opened the Senate session yesterday with a brief prayer, the first time an official of that faith has been asked to do so. He is the leader of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg.

The Senate is trying to show it doesn't limit the prayers to just Christian ministers or Jewish rabbis but follows a diverse religious policy, in hopes of persuading a Washington, D.C., group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, not to file suit to halt the opening-prayer practice.

"We must stick steadfastly to our core beliefs and preserve the right of prayer," said Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Most of the religious leaders giving the prayers have been either Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, but Senate officials said the opportunity is open to leaders of any recognized faith.

Americans United complained that one guest minister closed his prayer with the words "in the name of Jesus." Another minister used the words "Jesus Christ our Lord."

Mr. Stultz, 45, who is originally from the Altoona area, didn't mention the name of Buddha, but gave a three-minute address on what's important in life.

"There are only two mistakes in life -- not going all the way and not starting," he said.

In an interview before the Senate session, he told a reporter, "The historical Buddha recommended two things to keep tyranny from a society. One was democratic assemblies, and the other was the free exchange of wisdom by sages. So that's where I am coming from -- the fulfillment of my vocation as a Buddhist priest."

He said something similar during the prayer, but omitted the name of Buddha. He said he'd applied several months earlier for a chance to give the invocation.

"I really believe strongly that there is a place for wisdom in the engaged arena, including the state Legislature," he said.

Mr. Stultz said he was raised as an evangelical Protestant but was deeply affected by Buddhist teachings he heard on the 1970s television show "Kung Fu."

"They had all these beautiful Buddhist teachers on there," he said. "I thought wow, this is so cool."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United, wrote in an October letter to the Senate, "I don't think legislatures should open with prayers. The use of prayers with sectarian language implies that some religious groups enjoy favored status with the state. But if they're going to, the prayers should be nonsectarian," meaning not using the name of any actual religious leader.

But Mr. Lynn said that even nonsectarian prayer can make some people feel uneasy and urged senators "to consider ceasing the prayers altogether in order to make all feel equally welcome at session of the Senate."

The group noted that a federal court ordered the Indiana House of Representatives last year to stop opening its sessions with sectarian prayer.

Americans United calls itself "a religious liberty watchdog group." It said that government endorsement of one religion over others is unconstitutional and should be stopped. It didn't say it would sue the Senate over the prayers, but some state officials think a lawsuit is possible.