Some North Dakota GOP lawmakers abstain from Hindu prayer

BISMARCK, N.D. — Some Republican North Dakota House members abstained Tuesday from an opening floor session prayer by a Hindu cleric, marking the second time in recent years some GOP representatives have objected to an invocation from a non-Christian.

Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism in Nevada, offered prayer as the guest chaplain in the House, a day after he delivered the invocation in the Senate without incident.

Lutheran pastor and freshman Rep. Jeff Hoverson of Minot sat at the back of the chamber to "protest" the prayer.

"I don't want to be compelled to pray to a false god," Hoverson said. A handful of other lawmakers also stood or sat at the back of the chamber during the prayer. The lawmakers returned to their seats on the floor when Tuesday's prayer was over.

Hoverson said he met with Zed prior to floor session to tell him his protest "was nothing personal." He said the two hugged, exchanged handshakes and business cards.

The Senate and House convene daily with a prayer by the chamber's guest chaplains followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.

Zed, who is a native of India, said he has delivered prayers in about 17 statehouses and the U.S. Senate, where in 2007 his first official prayer was interrupted by several Christian activists who had to be restrained by the sergeant at arms and were later arrested.

In his prayer, which was identical in both North Dakota chambers, Zed told lawmakers in Sanskrit and English to "do your work with the welfare of others in mind."

Zed wore an orange robe and paint on his forehead that he said symbolized auspiciousness.

Four years ago, the Council on American-Islamic Relations was unsuccessful in wanting North Dakota House Republicans to apologize for canceling a Muslim's opening floor session prayer on Ash Wednesday and having a Christian deliver the invocation instead.

Dr. Nadim Koleilat, a surgeon in Bismarck and president of the city's Muslim Community Center, went across the hall and delivered the invocation to the state Senate, without objection from the lawmakers in that chamber.

A Hindu woman previously gave the opening prayer, as recently as 2015, but the invocation was listed then as Unitarian because she attends a Unitarian church.

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