TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- He had jokingly agreed to come to the meeting only if someone would buy his breakfast. But state Rep. Bob Grant turned serious when he spoke to the 30 people gathered in a basement room of the Docking State Office Building.
Grant related his near-death experience in October 1998, when he suffered from congestive heart failure. He described how he watched -- as if from above, outside his body -- while doctors operated on him.
His story was part of a weekly breakfast for House members, legislative staffers and anyone else who feels moved to participate. It's part of an effort by some legislators to make time for prayer during often hectic schedules.
On this recent Thursday morning, Grant wanted his colleagues to know that he had felt pushed back to his Roman Catholic faith by his heart crisis.
''I kind of got away from the Lord for a few years,'' he told them. ''That's an understatement.''
The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment prohibits a governmental establishment of religion, but it also guarantees free exercise of faith. And legislators and other government officials have often eagerly expressed their personal spirituality.
In Iowa and Nebraska, for example, lawmakers' prayer breakfasts are occasional and irregularly scheduled. In Montana, Michigan and other states, they have a single big breakfast each year. In Washington state, the meetings are not on government property.
The law on such events seems settled.
In 1983, in a case in which a Nebraska lawmaker challenged the hiring of a chaplain and daily prayer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those customs don't violate the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause.
In the majority opinion, then Chief Justice Warren Burger noted that the tradition of legislative prayer dated to colonial times and that, ''there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society.''
A decade later, the Supreme Court ruled in a New York case that a school district could not deny a religious group the use of its facilities for after-hours meetings in which participation was voluntary.
Legislative prayer breakfasts, then, can be assumed constitutionally permissible, experts say.
''There's not much one can do to challenge this kind of activity by legislators,'' said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. ''I think there are many Americans who are uncomfortable that religion is being prominent within legislative bodies.''
Lynn said he thinks prayer breakfasts are more appropriately held off of government property so that, ''it doesn't give the appearance that this sort of activity is part of the process.''
In Kansas, as in other states, each House and Senate session begins with a prayer. Some legislators keep Bibles on their desks and read them daily. Some post devotional messages in their offices.
Some also seek the fellowship offered by group prayer meetings.
The Kansas Senate's chaplain, the Rev. Fred Hollomon, has been leading Wednesday morning ''prayer breaks'' for several years.
House members and their guests have gathered for weekly breakfasts for at least 30 years.
''It's a good time for people to get together and share their faith,'' said Rep. Bob Bethell, a Baptist pastor from Alden.
The Thursday morning breakfast attracts between 20 and 30 people from a range of religious denominations. Often, the guest speaker is a House member's minister and will give the prayer when the House convenes later in the day.
But a guest speaker isn't required.
''If for some reason, there's bad weather, we just share among ourselves,'' said Rep. Laura McClure, who notes such sharing is in keeping with her Quaker traditions.
The morning Grant related the story of his near-death experience, the guest speaker was the Rev. Jerry Spencer, the Catholic chaplain at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. Spencer works with emergency medical personnel and dying patients.
''I would find it impossible if I didn't believe in God,'' he told the group.
After Spencer and Grant spoke, some of the people attending made prayer requests, for family members who were ailing or facing tough decisions, for college students traveling on spring break.
''It's important to, at some point during the week, come together to share not only the concerns everyone has and their prayer needs, but answered prayers, the joys,'' said Rep. Bill Mason, a Republican, who sponsors the breakfast with Rep. Jan Pauls, a Democrat.
Chaplain Hollomon's weekly event for senators is less formal and held in a fifth-floor Statehouse lounge.
One recent Wednesday morning session, Hollomon began by reading from Paul's letter to the Romans, Chapter 12: ''And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.''
Hollomon, pastor of Topeka's Highland Park Baptist Church, said he often reads from Psalms because of the poetry.
''I just try to get something that I think will give them a positive boost for the day,'' he said.
On the recent Wednesday, Sen. Larry Salmans prayed with Hollomon. He did Baptist missionary work in Vietnam even as he flew an Air Force rescue helicopter during the war there.
''Since I came back from Vietnam, I have a deep sense of gratitude for what God does in my life,'' he said.
Hollomon said senators often have difficulty making it to his 8 a.m. sessions. Some Senate subcommittee meetings and caucuses begin as early as 7:30 a.m. The breakfast sponsored by House members begins at 7 a.m., generally before representatives have any meetings.
During the recent meeting, Spencer, the Medical Center chaplain, made light of the lawmakers' busy schedules.
''When I get to the other side, and there's a meeting going on, I'll know I've gone to the wrong place,'' he joked. ''I think I'm preaching to the choir on this.''
End Adv for April 27
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