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On 1st Day, Pa. House's Only Muslim Woman Deals With "Blatant Islamophobia"

In this file photo, Movita Johnson-Harrell was a supervisor of the Philadelphia district attorney's Victim/Witness Services unit. An invocation given before Johnson-Harrell's swearing-in to the state House was broadly construed as Islamophobic.
Tom MacDonald
In this file photo, Movita Johnson-Harrell was a supervisor of the Philadelphia district attorney's Victim/Witness Services unit. An invocation given before Johnson-Harrell's swearing-in to the state House was broadly construed as Islamophobic.

(Harrisburg) -- The state House swore in its first-ever Muslim woman on Monday.

Movita Johnson-Harrell won her Philadelphia seat in a special election earlier this month. A mother and grandmother, she arrived in Harrisburg with 55 guests, more than half of whom she said were fellow Muslims.

But she said her first day in office was marred by an "offensive" invocation before her induction.

Invocations are routine in Harrisburg. They happen before every session day and most come from religious leaders--though a federal ruling last year opened the door to non-theistic speakers as well.

GOP leaders are appealing it.

Freshman Representative Stephanie Borowicz, a Clinton County Republican, was tapped to give the opening remarks the day of Johnson-Harrell's swearing-in.

In under two minutes Borowicz, a Christian, mentioned Jesus 13 times and praised President Donald Trump for his unequivocal support of Israel.

"God forgive us," she said to her assembled colleagues. "Jesus, we've lost sight of you. We've forgotten you God, and our country. And we're asking you to forgive us, Jesus."

Toward the end of the representative's remarks, at least one member on the chamber floor could be heard shouting objections. House Speaker Mike Turzai nudged Borowicz on the shoulder, and she wrapped things up with a quick "in Jesus' name, amen."

Johnson-Harrell said she was taken aback and offended--not just for herself, but for her family.

"I knew I was going to receive some discrimination because of my religion," she said. "Because I'm a hijabi woman. And I am the first...but I did not think it would come on the actual day of my swearing-in."

It seemed clear, she said, that Borowicz was "intentionally being offensive." And she added, the comments stung her even more because Muslims "actually believe that Jesus was a prophet; Muslims understand the significance of Jesus in this world and in our own personal lives."

Borowicz and her staff didn't respond to requests for comment or clarify her remarks. Reached while she was hurrying to the chamber floor, the representative said she wasn't aware of any pushback.

"I was in a Health Committee meeting, I've been voting," she said. "I'm trying to do my job."

It's likely the anger over her invocation became explicit to Borowicz once she made it to the floor.

In an unusual move, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, an Allegheny County Democrat, publicly denounced her remarks.

He said in his 28 years in the House, he's never heard an invocation like it.

"It was not meant to bring us together, it was not meant to inspire us, it was beneath the dignity of this House," he said.

He also suggested putting a group or set of guidelines together to "make sure that there's a message delivered from that rostrum that is meant to inspire us, that is meant to bring us together so we can have, at least, an opportunity at the beginning of the day to think that we can get something done here together."

Republican Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, also spoke. He said he would never ask a member to go against their beliefs.

After the remarks on the floor, a video of Borowicz's invocation was posted to her official Facebook page.

Dermody wasn't alone in his condemnation.

Minority Whip Jordan Harris released a statement saying he saw the situation as "religion weaponized in the House chamber in what could be considered a gross attempt to intimidate, demean and degrade a Muslim state representative."

Others, like Allegheny County Democrat Summer Lee, expressed disapproval on social media.

Johnson-Harrell said though this isn't how she wanted to spend her first day in office, she hopes it is a sign that she is bringing needed diversity to the House of Representatives.

"My win in particular is not just momentous because I'm the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature, but because of what I represent," she said. "Because I come from five generations of poverty, because I've had to live on food stamps and public housing, because at one point in my life the only care I got was from Planned Parenthood, because I am a Muslim woman, because I am a black woman."

She said she has never met Borowicz, but looks forward to introducing herself.

Katie Meyer covers politics, policy, power, and elections at every level of government, with the goal of showing how it all affects people’s lives. Before coming to Philadelphia, she covered state politics as Harrisburg bureau chief for WITF, and hosted the station’s politics podcast. She got her start in public radio in the Bronx, at Fordham University station WFUV. She’s from upstate New York.
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