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Hawaii senators hold prayer despite vote to end it

A group of nine Hawaii senators held hands, bowed their heads and sought God's blessing Wednesday, signaling that they'll still pray despite a vote last week to abandon official invocations.

Fears of court challenges compelled the state Senate to end prayers, making it the first legislative body in the nation to do so.

The informal prayer Wednesday took place in the Senate chamber before the daily lawmaking session, convened in such a way so as not to contradict the decision to remove invocations from Senate business.

"The message is that not all senators have eliminated prayer," said Sen. Will Espero, D-Ewa-Ewa Beach-Lower Waipahu, who organized the group. "We're well within the confines of the law."

The 25-member Senate changed its rules in a unanimous voice vote last Thursday to end prayers after the American Civil Liberties Union sent lawmakers a letter complaining that the invocations often referenced Jesus Christ, contravening the separation of church and state.

Senate leaders said they wanted to avoid the potential for breaking the law, but lawmakers who participated in the quiet prayer Wednesday said their faith has a place in their work.

"It's nice to start off the day with a prayer because we need all the help we can get," said Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-Kalaeloa-Makakilo.

The ACLU of Hawaii declined to comment Wednesday. The ACLU previously has said the Senate's action to remove prayers helps create an environment where everyone feels welcome regardless of spiritual beliefs.

Senate President Shan Tsutsui, who did not participate in the prayer session, said he condoned their independent movement to keep prayer alive.

"It's a matter of free speech," said Tsutsui, D-Wailuku-Kahului. "We do encourage members, at their own will and desire, to go ahead and engage in prayer."

He said prayers could be held in the Senate in the future because the chamber's rules are silent on the issue following last week's vote.

The brief prayer asked God to bless senators' choices and sought guidance to do right for the people they represent, said participant Sen. Pohai Ryan, D-Lanikai-Waimanalo.

"Government and faith should be separate. But just because I voted against it doesn't mean I'm not a spiritual person," Ryan said.

(This version CORRECTS Ryan's party affiliation to "D'' in 12th paragraph.)

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