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House Gets Heated With 'Religious' Talk
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-District 12), a conservative Butler County lawmaker, managed to cause an uproar in the capital last month when he opposed a routine House resolution -- the kind that usually passes unanimously -- meant to recognize the national gathering of a little-known Muslim group.
The grounds for Metcalfe's opposition? He said on the House floor that he would vote against the resolution because "the Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as God."
The story doesn't end there.
State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153), who holds the post of deputy House speaker, said that he was angered by Metcalfe's comments and approached him after the session ended.
"I told him that 'just as I respect his right to practice his faith, I would expect him to respect my right to practice my Judaism,' " recounted Shapiro. But if the member of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park was taken aback by the floor comments, he claimed that he was simply shocked by what Metcalfe said next.
"He said that he would be happy to council me and help me find Jesus in my life," said Shapiro, adding that Metcalfe had discussed the possibility of Shapiro avoiding hell.
Metcalfe denied that he offered to counsel Shapiro, instead saying that he he told the lawmaker that "he should weigh the evidence for himself as to who Jesus Christ was, that Jesus Christ is the messiah that [Shapiro's] ancestors prophesied of."
"I don't think it's any great revelation that Christians believe Jesus is God," continued Metcalfe. "What I told Josh is what any Christian would be thinking."
While House resolutions don't normally make headlines, Metcalfe's floor comments drew sharp rebukes from organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League.
"Your reasoning for your opposition ... implies that you believe that only those who align with your religious views deserve your support. That religious test conflicts with your responsibility as a democratically elected public official in the United States," wrote Shari Kochman, director of the ADL's Ohio/Kentucky/Allegheny regional office, and Steven Irwin, the group's Pittsburgh Council Chair, in a letter to Metcalfe that demanded an apology.
He's clearly resisted such calls.
"I stand by those same words. I didn't say anything that wasn't factually correct," said Metcalfe.
According to sources, Metcalfe is known as one of the House's most conservative members and had been relentless in sponsoring legislation aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
The political flare-up began on June 18 when House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R-District 169) introduced what is known as a noncontroversial resolution recognizing the 60th national convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. That program took place in Harrisburg from June 20-22. According to the House rules, if a lawmaker objects to such a resolution, it must be sent back to committee, said Shapiro.
Founded in 19th-century India, the sect claims tens of millions of followers worldwide and about 15,000 adherents in the United States, according to Zaki Kauser, an imam who serves as a spokesman for Ahmadiyya. The group considers its founder, Mizra Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), to have been the messiah, a belief that most Muslims consider heretical since Islam teaches that Mohammed was the final prophet. In fact, the group is persecuted throughout much of the Muslim world.
Metcalfe explained that he objected to the language of House Resolution 809. Specifically, he rejected the document's comparison of William Penn, a symbol of freedom of religion, to the current Ahmadiyya spiritual leader, who according to the resolution "has accumulated an exemplary record of humanitarian service that underscores his commitment to an ideal society."
Metcalfe claimed that "William Penn's view of a godly society would have been very different from that of the Muslims."
Bill Patton, a spokesman for O'Brien, said it's possible that the resolution could still pass, even though the Ahmadiyya event has already come and gone.
Asked if it was possible that the House could censure Metcalfe, Patton replied that "it's not likely, but it's up to the collective membership of the House."
Pennsylvanian Gov. Ed Rendell was apparently appalled when he first learned about the comments, according to spokesman Chuck Ardo.
"Metcalfe believes that this is a Christian country with Christian values. It is an alarming point of view in a pluralistic society like this," said Ardo. "He's entitled to his opinion. The only repercussions could be electoral, if the people in his district choose to hold him accountable."
Several Jewish community officials offered similar pronouncements.
"If he does not apologize, it is very clear that his reputation in the House will be soured even more," said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, a lobbying group.
Jeff Cohan, an official with the United Jewish Community of Pittsburgh, said that Metcalfe has not forged any meaningful ties with the Jewish community in that region. "If it was someone that we really respected, we would by alarmed by a comment by that. Or if it was someone who spoke for the Republican Party," said Cohan.
On the flip side, Steve Miskin, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Sam Smith, said that Metcalfe has been unfairly maligned, and that the Republican caucus is sticking by him: "All he said is that he's going to vote against a resolution. He didn't say that the Muslims are bad; he didn't say that the Koran is bad. All he said is that I believe in Jesus Christ, so I'm going to vote 'no.' "
Miskin said that he happened to be Jewish, and didn't find the House floor comments offensive.
State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-District 182) and State Rep. Steven Nickol (R-District 193) separately wrote letters to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a state agency, requesting that it hold hearings focusing on bias against Muslims.
Stephen Glassman, chair of the commission, said that he did plan to convene a hearing some time this summer: "We want to determine the level of misunderstanding there may be with regard to the Islamic faith."
Kauser, the Ahmadiyya spokesperson, noted that the group is not looking for an apology. He said that they received expressions of support from a number of lawmakers, as well as religious groups from across the state.
"I honestly think it was spur of the moment," said Kauser, regarding Metcalfe's statement. "I'm pretty sure he's regretting it right now."