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Speaker apologizes after opening prayer riles House

ST. PAUL -- The final Friday of the 2011 Minnesota Legislature opened with a prayer that upset many House members by a Minneapolis man critics call anti-gay.

The prayer was delivered as chants from both sides of the gay marriage issue filtered into the House chamber.

"I know this is a non-denominational prayer in this chamber and it's not about the Baptists and it's not about the Catholics alone or the Lutherans or the Wesleyans or the Presbyterians, the evangelicals or any other denomination but rather the head of the denomination and his name is Jesus, as every president up until 2008 has acknowledged," Bradlee Dean prayed. "And we pray it. In Jesus' name."

Guest chaplains are asked to make their prayers non-denominational, but Dean featured only Christian churches, leaving out Judaism and other religions. Several House members are Jewish.

Two hours later, House Speaker Kurt Zellers delivered a speech, pledging: "You will have my commitment that that type of person will never, ever be allowed on this House floor again as long as I have the honor of serving as your speaker."

The House released a letter to Dean, and other potential guest chaplains, that says, in part: "We ask that your prayer be interfaith and ecumenical. ... Please be mindful that the invitation by the House of Representatives is a privilege and we want to honor that privilege by not advocating a political position on issues or ideologies."

In close to 40 years as a lawmaker, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she never has known of a prayer that upset people so much.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said that during Dean's prayer, he leaned over and told a colleague "that is going to leave a mark."

Indeed, it did. After several minutes of Republican leaders talking to staff members, Zellers, R-Maple Grove, rapped the gavel and called the House into session again, without any explanation.

The House's normal chaplain went to the microphone and offered a prayer that included: "Thank you for the grace that is among us as individuals in this House."

More than two hours later, after the House returned from a recess, Zellers made a rare speech from the House floor.

"There was a prayer given by a man I personally denounce," Zellers said. "The decorum and the dignity of this body is my responsibility. I did not live up to that responsibility today. For that, I apologize to each and every one of you. This is the people's house. Each member who comes before this body deserves the respect, the dignity of all of us."

Zellers said he never would allow such a divisive opening prayer again.

"You have my sincere apology," Zellers said.

Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, rose to complain about the Dean prayer, admitting to being so mad that he was shaking.

"This cannot happen again," Morrow declared.

Morrow said he hoped the incident will not prevent representatives from uniting to do their work.

"Mr. Speaker," Morrow said, "I've always thought of the house prayer as an opportunity to contemplate together to come together before the heated battle of what can sometimes be partisan politics. It was an expectation, it was a hope that I thought was fulfilled every day I came into this chamber today. Within the last hour this hope has been crushed by a single person's words."

Morrow later shook Zellers' hand and thanked him for allowing him to speak.

Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, was upset.

"In my 30 years in the House, I have never seen such a hateful person be allowed to deliver the opening prayer," the openly lesbian lawmaker said. "Bradlee Dean has a documented record of hate speech, and has suggested that extremists who call for the execution of American gays are morally justified. The decision by GOP leadership to allow his intolerance, fear and outright bigotry into the 'people's house' is reprehensible."

House staff members said they would investigate how Dean came to deliver the prayer. Over the years, there have been other spats over what some people thought were inappropriate prayers, but long-time Capitol observers said they could remember nothing like this morning's incident.

Critics call Dean anti-gay. His prayer came on an already-charged day in which people on both sides of the gay-marriage issue were gathering outside the House chamber shouting chants in anticipation of a vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.