JEFFERSON CITY - For some legislators, the Capitol in Jefferson City the Capitol is not only a building in which they discuss bills and make a law, but also a place to study the Bible and common prayer.
Paul Meinsen leads the Capitol Bible Study and meets with the legislators, staff people and lobbyists in two groups on Tuesday morning and evening, every week during the legislative session. "We average about 30 to 32 who come to the Bible study. We have had at least 50 come at least once. There is a core group of about 25 who come regularly, but others who come off and on," he said.
The other prayer group in the Missouri Capitol, led by Aaron Baker, chief of staff for Sen. Bill Stouffer, District 21, meets on Thursday morning. Usually, about five senators and their staff attend the meeting. "We each take turns leading a discussion, and then we share prayer requests, pray for our work place and our co-workers and any other issue," Baker said.
Neither Meinsen nor Baker see a contradiction between reading the Bible in the Capitol and the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
"The separation of church and state means that the state cannot tell the church what to do and cannot force someone to worship in a particular way, but it does not say that the state has to ignore God’s word or the faith of the people," Baker said.
"A Bible study in the Capital is possible, because we’re doing it outside the normal business hours, so, it is not interfering with the work of the legislators. Also, the room is reserved by one of the legislators and not by me," Meinsen added.
Both leaders of the religious groups said they had not heard of any objections to having a Bible study or a prayer meeting in the state building. "Most people who know that we’re here, say it’s fine or it’s not fine. They really don't care, but no one has said, you don’t belong here, and I don’t expect to hear that here in Missouri," said Meinsen.
Sen., Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, one of the participants of the Bible study in the Capitol said, "If you are looking at that separation of church and state issue and really study it, it is supposed to be a one way separation to keep the state out of the business of the church, not to keep the church from influencing society. The church is called to be salt and light and salt is a preservative. We are there to be God’s tool in this world, to restrain evil and the church has to be a big part of that. If we relied on just the state for that, I think we would be in pretty sad shape."
Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-St. Louis, does not participate in these activities, but said he had no objections. "I take a somewhat broad view, I think if people want to read the Bible within the Capitol, that’s fine. It is the people’s building. If they want to meet in a room and read the bible, pray or give speeches to their point of view, I think, I am a victim of freedom of speech, and I would accept that."
"Now, the issue becomes, whether we have separation of church and state in this country, and we do, this does push on that quite a bit. But, as long as it is open to all religions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or perhaps atheists who want to meet and discuss their beliefs or lack of beliefs, as well, I can feel that the state is not too involved. It does provide a place for people to come together from all over the state. This is not a church or a mosque or a temple, but, I think, for the purpose of study, it is appropriate and I can live with it under the concept of freedom of speech," Ellinger said.
Meinsen underlined that his invitation to discussing the Bible is open to everyone, believers and nonbelievers, people of all religions and all Christian churches, and all political opinions. "In our Bible study, we have 10 or 12 Baptists, one or two Catholics, two or three Methodists, one Anglican and others who go to a non-denominational church. At times we will have some who are not affiliated with a church", he said. All participants in Baker’s prayer group are Christians of various denominations.
From a political point of view, there is not that diversity. In either group, the majority of the attendees are Republicans. In Meinsen’s Bible Study, about 28-30 Republicans and 2 Democrats attend. Baker said that "very seldom are there Democrats who come."
When asked why most of the legislators who attend these groups are Republican, Baker answered, "I think because Republicans tend to be Christians in this country. A poll would find that there are many more Republicans than Democrats and the legislature reflects that. That does not mean that Democrats cannot be Christian or that the democratic legislators here are not Christian, but I would say that Republicans are more likely to be active church goers."
In commenting on this, Democrat Ellinger said, "I think that the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party today is very imbued with concepts of their beliefs, usually Christian, not always, and that is certainly their right. I think the Democratic party is made up of many religious faiths, not primarily Christian, but Jews, gentiles, Protestants, Catholics, believers, non believers. I think the Democratic party is more of a big tent, if you will. The Republican Party has become, primarily, those who espouse the Christian faith. Certainly, it is their right under the Constitution to so recognize themselves."
Despite the many similarities of the two groups, there are also some differences. While Meinsen’s group concentrates on studying the Bible, Baker’s group focuses on prayer. While Bible study is open to all legislators, representatives, senators, and staff, the prayer meeting is intended only for senators and staff. While the Capitol Bible Study had an average attendance of 11 in its first year, it has grown to an average of 32 in five year. But the prayer meeting, which has existed for 10 years, and has had as many as 20 attendees, is now down to five.
Baker organizes the prayer meetings in the Missouri Senate as a volunteer, Paul Meinsen works as a State Director of the Capitol Commission, a corporation organizing a Bible study in 19 capitals of the U.S. for legislators, staff people and lobbyists. The Capitol Commission presents itself on its website as "a charitable and religious nonprofit corporation operating exclusively for charitable and religious purposes within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code." The corporation was founded in October, 2009 and its president is Jim Young from Raleigh, North Carolina.
"Since I am not paid by the state, but like any other missionary in the Protestant church, we have to work on fund raising. For instance, last Thursday we had a fund raising dinner. I also meet with churches, individuals, and businesses. Some of the participants donate, but they don’t need to pay. We have friends, family and churches that also contribute," Meinsen explained.
For Lembke, the Bible study is important for his work in the Capitol. "I think that it is a reminder of who we are and whose we are and who we belong to. In our walk, does that effect the way that we govern, the decisions that we make, the stands that we take on policies and different legislations?"
According to Meinsen, his work is not limited just to the Capitol, but he also goes to churches throughout the state and teaches Christians to have a biblical view of their relationship with government authorities. "Just because we have freedom of speech in America does not mean Christians can dishonor or be disrespectful of people. Even though we may disagree with our president or governor or representative or congressman, that is not the proper action of a Christian in relationship to the governing authorities. We are a reflection of Christ. Christ never angrily confronted Caesar or the Romans. Christ’s mission was to bring man to God. And that should be our continuing mission as the church. Instead of shaking our fists at our governing authorities, we should reach out to them with the love of Christ," Meinsen said.
He adds that the Missouri Capitol does not need more ethics, it needs more ethical people, people who sincerely want to do what is right.
Editor's Note: Piotr Studnicki is a Catholic Priest from Poland who is a student at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He has been participating in Missouri Digital News as part of a student exchange program.
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.