Pennsylvania State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell (D) made history on Monday when she was sworn in as the first black Muslim woman to serve in the state house, after winning a special election earlier this month. But her achievement was swiftly overshadowed by an Islamophobic invocation prior to her swearing-in.
Freshman Republican Rep. Stephanie Borowicz delivered a ceremonial prayer that referenced Jesus 13 times and ended by praising President Donald Trump for “standing beside Israel unequivocally.” Several lawmakers said the prayer was an extreme and offensive deviation from the chamber’s normal protocol, which calls for an interfaith invocation.
“God forgive us — Jesus — we’ve lost sight of you, we’ve forgotten you, God, in our country, and we’re asking you to forgive us, Jesus. I claim all these things in the powerful, mighty name of Jesus, the one who, at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord, in Jesus’ name,” Borowicz said.
Borowicz’s office did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment. She told the Pennsylvania Legislative Services on Monday that “that’s how I pray everyday … I don’t apologize ever for praying.”
Johnson-Harrell called the prayer “Islamophobic” and told ThinkProgress that the experience was “disturbing.”
“Initially, I just thought it was a prayer like any other time and I showed my respect by standing,” Rep. Johnson-Harrell told ThinkProgress. “I attempted to make eye contact [with Borowicz], but she wouldn’t make eye contact back with me.”
I came to the @PaHouse to make friends on both sides of the aisle because we need to work together for EVERYONE across the commonwealth. After hearing the prayer given the day I took the oath of office, it’s clear that my presence is needed now more than ever #PeopleFirst pic.twitter.com/dK4I7gO9aY
— Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell (@RepMovita) March 27, 2019
Johnson-Harrell added that she introduced herself to Borowicz Wednesday morning.
“I look forward to having future conversations with her,” she said. “We need to work together…And if I have to be the example of that, then so be it.”
On Tuesday, the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) condemned Borowicz’s prayer for its “divisive and intolerant anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish rhetoric.”
Johnson-Harrell’s Democratic colleagues, many of whom were visibly uncomfortable throughout the invocation, also said Borowicz’s words were offensive and intolerant.
I walked off the House floor in protest during today’s prayer led by a GOP member. This fire and brimstone Evangelical prayer was before the swearing in of the PA House’s first ever Muslim woman. It epitomizes religious intolerance. Below is the video. https://t.co/pq34UmK2Nn
— Kevin J. Boyle (@RepKevinBoyle) March 25, 2019
— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) March 25, 2019
“I was shocked because I’ve been in the legislature — this is my fourth term — and I’ve never seen or heard a prayer quite like that,” House Minority Whip Jordan Harris (D) told ThinkProgress. “I was saddened because on the day that we should be celebrating the first Muslim woman in our legislature, we had a person who was weaponizing prayer.”
Harris said that prayers at the beginning of a legislative session are routine and are “meant to unite us as a body … so that we can prepare to do the work of the people of Pennsylvania.”
However, in this instance, Harris believes the invocation was used to intimidate Johnson-Harrell at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise worldwide.
“While I go to church and I don’t mind hearing the name Jesus, I don’t like hearing it used to demean members of the Muslim faith,” he said. “With the backdrop of what’s happening in New Zealand … this is definitely not the time.”
For the past few days, Speaker Mike Turzai (R) has come under intense criticism for allowing such a prayer to be delivered. In the video, he is seen tapping Borowicz on the back presumably in an effort to encourage her to finish, after one legislator was heard yelling objections on the House floor.
In a statement to ThinkProgress, Turzai’s director of communications Christine Goldbeck said, “We believe we addressed the matter Monday afternoon on the House Floor, when Speaker Turzai reminded everyone that the Members of the House come from a wide variety of faiths and we believe it is important to respect this diversity. Speaker Turzai reminded the Members that our guidelines ask them to deliver an inter-faith opening prayer.”
Goldbeck added that “not many folks are talking about the fact” that the legislature also, on the same day, hosted a Muslim cleric who delivered an Islamic prayer. In that particular prayer, the imam delivers the Surah al-Fatiha, which makes no mention of any prophets and does not include any political language involving Israel.
“There’s no justification,” Harris said in response to Goldbeck’s mention of the Muslim cleric. “We have had rabbis, we have had imams. This wasn’t a prayer. This was a targeted message.”
Harris said he plans to meet with Speaker Turzai to develop regulations that will ensure such prayers are not delivered in the future.
Meanwhile, Johnson-Harrell told ThinkProgress that it has been encouraging to see her colleagues stand up for her.
“For the Democratic caucus to speak up on my behalf, defend me, and denounce the prayer, was just so reaffirming that I was in the right place,” she said.
This story has been updated with comments from Rep. Johnson-Harrell. It has also been updated to clarify that the imam’s prayer occurred on the same day as Borowicz’s prayer.