“I pray for the people of Tennessee who have been so downtrodden by the wicked courts from on high; that they have been subject to tyrannical judiciary."”
NASHVILLE -- A normally routine prayer in the Senate on Tuesday turned out to be anything but when a minister and activist bemoaned what she called "tyrannical" overreach from Washington.
The prayer wasn't unprecedented in dabbling into politics but stood out in how vigorously it veered in that direction. It came a day after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam convened a special session to discuss his plan to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. Many fellow Republicans in the Legislature are dubious about the plan because it relies on funds available under President Barack Obama's health care law.
June Griffin, pastor of the American Bible Protestant Church, an independent body in Dayton, Tennessee, was invited to speak by Republican Sen. Frank Niceley, an opponent of the governor's plan.
Before praying, Griffin asked for prayer requests, and a legislator asked that she pray for lawmakers as they decide whether to approve the governor's proposal, which could be voted on as early as this week.
Griffin began her prayer with a petition for the welfare of the state, before launching into a tirade about overreach by the federal government.
"I pray for the people of Tennessee who have been so downtrodden by the wicked courts from on high; that they have been subject to tyrannical judiciary," said Griffin, her voice cracking. "I pray that you will be our coverage, that we will not be forced into these edicts from Washington."
She told The Associated Press after the session that she opposes what she considers "forced insurance of any kind."
In his introduction of Griffin, Niceley hinted at Griffin's instincts for challenging constitutional boundaries when he boasted that she had "visited 95 counties and hung the Ten Commandments in 88 courthouses across the state."
When asked about Griffin's prayer, the Strawberry Plains Republican said he didn't see anything wrong with it and called Griffin a "watchdog of Democracy."
"In this country of ours, we need a certain amount of conservatives that pay attention to the details," Niceley said. "There are things that happen in this country that scare everybody."
It's not the first time a minister invited to pray in the Senate has drawn attention. A megachurch minister in northeast Nashville who was convicted of murder and served nearly nine years in prison was invited by another Republican lawmaker to speak on the first day of the session last month.
In 2006, a special session on ethics got off to a rocky start in the Senate when one lawmaker and the Senate speaker sparred over a reference to Christianity in opening prayer.
Before the invocation, then-Sen. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat who is now a congressman, asked then-Lt. Gov. John Wilder to have the person giving the invocation to respect the beliefs of others in the chamber. The guest was a close friend of Wilder and had given the invocation many times before, often referring to Jesus Christ in his delivery.
Cohen, who is Jewish, had sponsored legislation several years earlier that stated: "The person delivering the invocation may offer prayer according to the beliefs and practices of his faith, but shall be informed that the citizens of Tennessee and its elected senators are of a variety of faiths and should respect that diversity."