Government-sponsored prayer is all or nothing. That means legislative bodies that want to begin meetings with an invocation must either be inclusive of all viewpoints, or prohibit official prayers completely. But don’t tell that to one Idaho senator who seems to have a real problem with the prospect of a Hindu prayer before a senate session.
Rajan Zed, a Hindu cleric from Nevada, has delivered prayers before various government bodies, including the U.S. Senate as well as legislatures and city councils in several western states. So when he asked to offer an invocation on behalf of the Idaho Senate, his request was accepted.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg) told the Boise Spokesman-Review that he approved of Zed’s message, which will include passages from the Bhagavad-Gita and will ask lawmakers to work for the good of others. That’s not exactly a radical idea, nor does it appear to be proselytizing.
“I reviewed the prayer,” Hill said. “It did not seem offensive in any way. It refers to ‘deity supreme.’”
But that wasn’t good enough for Sen. Steve Vick (R-Dalton Gardens), who threatened to walk out during the prayer, which is scheduled to be delivered today. Vick explained his objections, which seem rooted in a bias against non-Christians and a misunderstanding of Hinduism.
“They have a caste system,” Vick said. “They worship cows.”
Vick got a few things wrong there.
First, the caste system in India is not inherent to Hinduism. While Hindus in India have historically been associated with this hierarchical system, it is not a requirement of Hindu doctrine to accept it, according to the Hindu American Foundation. It is also not unique to that religion. Indeed, the caste system is present among other groups in India -- including Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs and even Christians.
Second, while cows are sacred to Hindus they are not actually worshiped. This is a common misconception.
Vick added that he believes (incorrectly) that the United States was “built on the Judeo-Christian not only religion but work ethic, and I don’t want to see that undermined.”
Fortunately Hill, who is Mormon, was quick to dismiss his colleague’s objections and stand up for the First Amendment.
“In my mind, you either believe in religious freedom or you don’t…We have had Jewish prayers, many denominations of Christian prayers.”
Hill also pointed out the historical significance of being inclusive.
“There was a time in Idaho history when Mormons were not allowed to pray in the Legislature – nor were they allowed to hold office or vote because Mormons were not considered Christians,” he said. “I think we’ve come a long way since then.”
None of that seems to have convinced Vick, who said on Facebook last week that he is “working to get [the prayer] stopped.”
Americans United maintains the position that governments are better off without official prayers. Vick’s protest is a great example of why this is so. There is just no way to please everyone with any single prayer and it’s best to avoid such needless conflicts.
But since Idaho lawmakers have decided to pursue a different course, it wouldn’t hurt them to hear a non-Christian (or even non-theistic) invocation from time to time. If the Idaho Senate is to be an open forum for invocations, it must be open to all.
P.S. Three senators, including Vick, refused to listen to the Hindu invocation this morning. They returned to the Senate chamber once the prayer was completed.