Interview with Pennsylvania legislator Babette Josephs

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Babette Josephs – a Pennsylvania legislator who recently voted against a resolution declaring October 2012 in Pennsylvania as “Prayer Month” and refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance — noting that she viewed it as a prayer — at a House State Committee meeting. We spoke about separation of church and state, the “Prayer Month” resolution, the constant evoking of religion in Pennsylvania by lawmakers, the Pledge of Allegiance and her refusal to say it, issues facing Pennsylvanians, and more.

Can you explain what you think about separation of church and state?

Church has no business intruding into government affairs and shaping public policy to serve the ends of any religious group unless we’re talking about broad moral things like working hard. On other hand, I find it horrifying just how many church people could understand how the state can step in too. Neither one is acceptable; neither institution should seek to influence the other institution.

Some cases also turn into a balancing act. What’s the first amendment right of a [public school] teacher or student wearing a religious symbol? They are complex questions that get resolved in court systems. In broad terms, though, government has no business telling people how to practice their religion or to practice religion at all. People who belong to religions also have no business bringing their aims into government.

Not only is the United States respected and admired around the world, even more than there is real, real, real admiration because of the freedom of religion we all enjoy and we need to keep exercising to make sure it is really great.

You refused to say the pledge of allegiance in a committee meeting recently.

The committee chair customarily asks someone to lead in the pledge before meetings and hearings. It was a setup. I was waiting for it. It was clear that when I stood for pledge I didn’t say the word or put my hand where people think their hearts are. I stood up and respected people who wanted to say it. The last day they decided to ask me to say the pledge and tried to embarrass me, I said “I don’t pray in public, my parents and I decided the pledge was a prayer, and I do not intend to say the pledge in the future.” I know the principles on which I ground my life and my philosophy is that as I approach my job as public servant out of respect and love for my country.

Can you provide some background information surrounding your refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance?

When I was 15 or 14 years old, Congress put the words ‘under God’ in the pledge. I discussed this with my parents and I didn’t like this because I felt there is a commandment which says depending on how you translate it not to misuse the name of God — the third one — I learned thou shalt not use the name of thy lord our god in vain and not to misuse God’s name. My parents and I decided that the pledge has been changed into a prayer and I never liked to pray in public. I don’t pray in public. I stopped saying pledge in high school and haven’t said it since.

Can you talk about the “Prayer Month” resolution which was had recently passed in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvanians are not irresponsible children. If we want to pray at home, be religious, or find a religious center of life we can do that without the legislature. There are plenty of things they should be doing right now such as addressing the voter id mess so that people know what they need when they go to polls in these two short weeks. There is also a myriad of problems such as high unemployment and cuts to public education that are dragging us down and keeping us from fully participating in the 21st century economically, socially, and culturally. The legislature is wasting its time urging people to pray or not pray.

Can you talk about sectarian prayer in Pennsylvania House of Representatives sessions?

People who give prayers are asked not to dwell on a particular sect or religion, but of course they also have a first amendment right. We can’t control what they say and I don’t think that we ought to get into the habit of telling the clergy or religious how they ought to be praying. I’m not on the floor for prayer or the pledge. I am not interested in that. It is my individual opinion and I intend to be respected for it.

Do you have any advice for Pennsylvanian lawmakers?

I don’t like being told by them what I ought to do – but regarding pronouncements about legislation, when I make arguments that have do to with government or societal outcome, I do not feel it is necessary to back my arguments up with a deity. There is problem with infusing government with sectarian interests. You don’t have to resort to prayer, just do your job.

To clarify, I do have a problem with saying not to bring religion to jobs in the sense that people get certain values from religious and nonreligious upbringings like if you work hard, you deserve to succeed or if you don’t lie or hurt people you’ll feel better and life will be better in general for everybody. If you understand that folks should be treated with dignity, you’ll be successful and happy in own life. When people have those values because of religious upbringings I don’t have problem, but when we start saying God all time, talking about holy books of only one religion, talking about a deity as some religions

Any other comments?

I understand from stuff I have read that is being reported internationally like the voter ID stuff going on. I can’t believe a country that has stood for universal suffrage has a very concerted effort by Republican administrations to suppress peoples’ votes. I put that together with invoking God’s name every five seconds – there are implications to this suppression of votes and constant invoking of God’s name. I think around the world people are horrified and disappointed in the USA which should be better than that. There is all of this praying and not enough organized systemic effort to keep people participating in government.