A Republican legislator has been holding weekly Bible study sessions for lawmakers in his state Capitol office for the past three years, raising questions about where the line between church and state lies in the building.
Administrative rules require state employees to use state buildings only for official work.
Critics say the meetings are inappropriate, even though praying before legislative session days and religious displays in the Capitol rotunda have been upheld as legal.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the meetings create an impression that lawmakers care more about working for their god than the people.
“It signals impotence,” Gaylor said. “We are too inadequate to deal with the problems of our state, so we have to beg a deity (for help).”
Praying openly is common in the Capitol. The Senate and Assembly begin floor debates with a prayer, delivered either by a minister, some other religious figure or even a lawmaker. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that such pre-session prayers are constitutional. And over the holiday season, several religions put out displays in the Capitol rotunda. The state Department of Administration allows anyone who submits an application to the Capitol police to put up a display.
State Rep. Paul Tittl, of Manitowoc, describes himself as a follower of the Evangelical Free denomination, which teaches that the Bible is without error. He said he began holding the study sessions in his office as soon as he was sworn in to his first term in 2013. The sessions run from 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. every Wednesday and are open only to lawmakers, he said. Anywhere from four to a dozen legislators from both parties typically attend, including Catholic, Jewish, Methodist and evangelical lawmakers, he said.
“Faith is a huge part of my life,” Tittl said. “It doesn’t stop because I come to the state Capitol.”
Democratic Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, who is Jewish, said he regularly attends Tittl’s sessions because they offer a glimpse into other religions and a chance to connect personally with other legislators. He doesn’t see any problem with holding the meetings in Tittl’s office because the sessions don’t favor one religion, he said.
Tittl said the first email he sent on the state system was a message announcing he would hold the sessions. Since then, he’s sent one other message about the meetings on the state system, he said. He didn’t see any problem with the emails since legislators often use the state system to invite each other out to lunch or come to their offices for birthday cake, he said.
He said the meetings take place before his staff arrives for work and that they wouldn’t be allowed to attend, anyway, since the meetings are only for legislators.
Howard Schweber, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist who specializes in constitutional law, said he doesn’t see any problem with the sessions. The meetings are voluntary and Tittl has taken steps to make sure his staff isn’t forced to attend, Schweber said.
Courts have been lenient in allowing prayer to begin legislative sessions, when lawmakers’ staffers must be present so they almost certainly would permit such prayer sessions, Schweber said.