February 3, 2020

Native activist whose prayer sparked ire in the House is disinvited from Senate


New Mexico State Senate.

A Native American activist who delivered a politically charged invocation in the state House of Representatives has been uninvited from giving the opening prayer Friday in the Senate.

On Jan. 23, Lee Moquino kicked off the floor session in the House by telling state representatives they were standing in “occupied indigenous space” and that Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico should be protected from oil and gas drilling — a major revenue source for the state of New Mexico. His invocation reportedly upset some lawmakers.

The Rev. Richard Murphy, who as the Senate chaplain is in charge of scheduling invocations in that chamber, said he made the decision to cancel Moquino’s invocation.

“I may be overprotective, but I didn’t want to see him having to take any unnecessary heat after what had happened on the other side,” Murphy  said Monday. “It was more for him than anything else.”

Murphy called his decision, which he said was his and his alone, prudent.

“I just thought, you know, if there was any bad feelings, animosity towards him when he walked into the building itself, I just didn’t want him to put up with any grief,” Murphy said. “That’s all.”

Moquino did not return a message seeking comment but shared the email he received from Murphy on Facebook. In the post, Moquino wrote, “God … where is god.”

“Regretfully I am canceling your appearance at the state Senate on Feb. 7,” Murphy wrote in the email to Moquino the morning of Jan. 20, the same day The New Mexican published a story about the backlash Moquino’s invocation received in the House. “In light of the current controversy I strongly feel I don’t have a choice. God bless you in your continuing ministry.”

After Moquino delivered the invocation last month, House Speaker Brian Egolf decided lawmakers themselves would give the opening prayer, ending the long-standing practice of asking clergy and others to do it. Egolf said it wasn’t Moquino that prompted the change but a last-minute cancellation the next day that forced his staff to scramble to find a replacement.

“As discussed previously, House staff spends hours trying to organize individuals to provide the daily invocation,” Egolf’s office said in a statement. “The decision to change invocations in the House was because of ongoing conversations about time management and resources, and the feedback that the members find it much more meaningful when the invocation is offered by their colleagues.”

Murphy, however, said a member of Egolf’s staff told him Moquino’s invocation sparked the change.

“He told me that people were upset,” said Murphy, a retired and assisting priest at the Church of the Holy Faith in Santa Fe, which is the oldest Episcopal church in New Mexico.

“I can’t remember him saying much except there was a big problem,” Murphy added. “One was the minority leader, and I don’t know if it was — well, it must’ve involved the speaker, obviously — that they decided to cancel the program and then just do it in-house.”

In a statement last week, House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said he agreed with Egolf “that politically charged prayer has no place in this chamber.” Townsend did not return messages seeking comment Monday.

Murphy said he decided to cancel Moquino’s scheduled appearance based on hearing “that there was a problem,” as well as the newspaper story.

“No one has said anything to me at all,” he said. “It was just my call because I think [Moquino is] a great guy.”

Moquino, a Santa Clara and Zia Pueblo man, is an outspoken advocate for Native causes. He was among the most vocal protesters of the now-defunct Entrada, a long-running Fiesta de Santa Fe pageant recalling the 1692 retaking of Santa Fe by Spanish conquistadors. Some Native Americans and others said they considered the event a offensive and revisionist portrayal of history.

“You do not represent me!” Moquino, donning a Native headdress, screamed with his fist in the air as the Rev. Adam Lee Ortega y Ortiz, the former rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, delivered an opening blessing at the 2017 Entrada.

Murphy said the responsibility of scheduling invocations in the Senate has been passed down over the years.

“When I was first here way back in the dark ages, [the late] Rabbi Leonard Helman had the job for a number of years,” Murphy said. “He just simply asked another pastor when he was ready to step down if he wanted to take over the role.”

Murphy said he’s served as the Senate’s chaplain for about six years and that finding someone to deliver the invocation isn’t too difficult.

“It’s not usual for people to say no,” he said. “If they say no, it’s usually for good reason. People feel pretty honored to do it. … I can probably count on one hand the number of people who said they can’t do it. It’s a pretty impressive reaction to get from folks.”

Murphy said he sends people of the cloth and others who agree to deliver the invocation a “notice” with a few simple rules, including “not to be polemical” and “the prayer itself should be no more than 2 or 3 minutes.”

“In terms of church talk, it’s a pastoral posture that I want folks to take,” he said. “I do the same thing at a pulpit. I don’t take sides because then you’ve got nobody to argue against you. It’s a one-way diatribe. But once I’m out of the pulpit, people can talk to me about anything they want. But I just don’t think that’s the time or the place.”

Murphy said he will likely ask Moquino, who has delivered the invocation before the Senate in the past, to come back in the future.

“I’d probably pick up the phone next year and give him a call. Like I said, I have no animosity,” Murphy said. “Quite the opposite. I think he’s terrific.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.