Did a Georgia House prayer violate the Constitution?

Georgia lawmakers are used to fire-and-brimstone preachers at the start of each day's legislative session. But a particularly scorching prayer prompted one legislator to question whether it violated the separation of church and state.

The House chaplain of the day, Doyle Kelley, was fraught with emotion throughout his 10-minute prayer on Tuesday. It was the one-year anniversary of his heart attack. And he was overcome with pride at his son, state Rep. Trey Kelley, a Cedartown Republican who introduced him.

Much like other opening prayers, Kelley quoted from the Bible and invoked Jesus Christ. But it was near the end of his sermon when he ventured into searing territory:

"The command is there: Do all in the name of Jesus Christ. People always ask me, 'Why are there so many lost people in the state of Georgia?' 

"The statistics came out that there's 70 percent of the people in the state of Georgia that are lost. That are lost. Seventy percent. There are over 10 million people in the state of Georgia. That means there are 7 million people lost.

"Now you want to hear it in Baptist terms: Seven million people that are lost are dying and on their way to Hell. That's what that means." 

We’re not sure what survey he’s referring to, but Democratic state Rep. Josh McLaurin said he believed the preacher was citing a poll on abortion.

He wrote a letter to House Speaker David Ralston's legal counsel seeking the office's policies. He said he wanted to "ensure that legislative prayer in our chamber is always consistent with the First Amendment."

ExploreYou can read the full letter here.

The Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that legislative bodies can begin their meetings with prayer – even if that prayer favors a specific religion.

But the 5-4 ruling also said if a prayer would go too far if "the course and practice over time" shows the prayers "denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion."

Ralston’s office declined to comment. Trey Kelley said his father was citing data from the Georgia Baptist Association about church participation that was not linked to abortion.

“The misguided freshman legislator is simply wrong to try and insert partisan politics into the collective fellowship of our morning sermons,” said the Republican lawmaker, “and if he had reached out to me, I could have cleared it up for him.”

McLaurin, a Yale-trained attorney who won a Sandy Springs-based district in November, said he had little choice but to take action.

“It's one thing for legislative session to feel like a church service,” he said. “It's another thing for the Georgia House to allow blatantly unconstitutional establishment of religion.”