Last week a number of legislators left the floor and sat in the back of the House chambers because they didn’t want to take part in the day’s opening prayer. Rajan Zed, a Hindu, provided the prayer. It was their right to do so, just as National Football League players have the right to kneel during the national anthem.
Many Americans disagree with the NFL players and there are North Dakotans disappointed with the legislators. This nation was founded out of the desire for freedom and the freedom of expression remains a vital concept in this country.
One legislator called abstaining from the prayer a quiet protest. Another legislator, Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, is a Lutheran minister. He said the state's constitution "does not refer to a Hindu god. It refers to ... the one true God." Hoverson added, "I accept him, but I don't want to be compelled to pray to a false god."
Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism based in Reno, Nev., gave the opening prayer in the U.S. Senate in 2007. To Hoverson’s credit, he met with Zed before the prayer and explained what he planned to do. They had a photo taken of them together.
What the Tribune Editorial Board doesn’t agree with is the plan by Hoverson to send a letter to Legislative Management saying he was "saddened" a Hindu prayer would be offered in the House.
Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, and Rep. Daniel Johnston, R-Kathryn, explained they were OK with Zed giving the prayer, but since they aren’t Hindu, stayed in the back out of respect to Zed.
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Zed probably wasn’t offended by the legislators’ quiet protests. When he addressed the U.S. Senate he was interrupted by Christian protesters. If he hadn’t been told, he likely wouldn’t have realized the legislators in the back were protesting.
There was a misconception that Zed was the first Hindu to address the North Dakota Legislature. Aruna Seth, of Bismarck, has given Hindu prayers in the House and Senate chambers a number of times since 1997. The last time she offered the prayer was in 2015. So legislators shouldn’t have been surprised that Zed was invited to give the prayers.
The Tribune agrees with House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, who said he wished legislators would have stayed on the floor to show respect to Zed. We feel you can bow your head and show respect for another person’s religion without violating your faith.
Being respectful and polite is not the same as worshipping. In the book of Daniel Chapter 3 the Bible relates a story where Daniel and three friends would not bow down and worship an idol, but in the scriptures at no point was Daniel disrespectful. He says, “O King,” “Your Majesty.” Daniel illustrates that we may have different beliefs and views, but that is no excuse to be rude or disrespectful.
We hope the Legislature continues to invite members of other faiths to provide opening prayers. The House canceled the opening prayer by a Muslim on Ash Wednesday in 2015. That decision sent the wrong message. Fortunately, he was asked to give the invocation in the North Dakota Senate.
Islam and Hinduism are among the world’s largest religions. It’s difficult for Christians to share their beliefs if they aren’t willing to learn about other faiths. The Legislature needs to lead by example and continue to invite members of other religions to pray with them.