Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2018

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A PRAYER AND PROTEST

WASHINGTON - A couple of days ago, when it became known that a Hindu chaplain from Reno would be giving his religion's first-ever opening prayer for the U.S. Senate, offices of a Christian values organization in Mississippi didn't think twice about bad karma.

The American Family Association tapped its 3 million-strong database and launched a crusade against what one opponent would later sum up as "the abomination."

"Take action," read the message posted on the group's Web site and sent to members. It urged protest phone calls and e-mails to senators.

Three people did more.

Thursday, guest chaplain Rajan Zed took his place behind the parliamentarian's desk in his colorful garments and beaded necklace and was about to praise God. But from the gallery came a bellowing male voice.

"Lord Jesus, forgive us for allowing the prayer of the wicked, which is an abomination in your sight."

The gavel pounded. "We shall have no other gods before you," the man continued. Capitol Police officers hauled him out.

Stunned silence filled the chamber.

"Let us pray," the Nevadan began again.

But a second protester, a woman, interrupted. She was hauled away. A final protester tried with less success. All three were arrested for the misdemeanor offense of disrupting the Senate.

Tim Wildmon, president of American Family Association and son of its founder, said in an interview that his problem with Hindus getting equal time on the Senate floor as Christians and Jews is that they don't follow the Bible. He has the same complaint about the time in the early 1990s when a Muslim offered a prayer in the chamber.

None of these groups worships the same monotheistic God that many of the Founding Fathers did, and once you let them in, who knows what will come next , he said.

"What god are you praying to today - the god of water? The god of insects?" said Wildmon, insisting he condones the message but not the actions of the protesters, whom he said he did not know. "When you have a Christian clergy prayer, you know what God you're talking about. The true God - the God of the Bible."

But what about the nation's heritage as a place free of religious persecution?

"I'm not for persecuting anybody," he said. "They can have all the Hindu temples they want. I'm just saying it's inappropriate to have them praying before the U.S. Senate."

The Senate chaplain's office said it does not determine whose God is allowed to bless the proceedings. When senators ask to have a guest chaplain, as Majority Leader Harry Reid did for Zed, the chaplain's office allows any god to be invoked.

"This is America, and the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion and from persecution of religion," said Alan Kieran, chief of staff at the chaplain's office. "That's what the Senate stands for."

Zed is a professor at Truckee Meadows Community College and public affairs director at the India Association of Northern Nevada. He spends much of his time making others aware of Hinduism. Hindus number about 2 million in the United States, believe in one god that can take many forms, making Hinduism a monotheistic and henotheistic religion. They also practice yoga.

Zed made history earlier this year by being the first Hindu to pray before the Nevada Legislature, reports said.

Calling on God in the Senate on a day the chamber debated the war in Iraq, he ended by praying for "peace, peace, peace."

Moments later Reid tried to help out with an abbreviated summer course in religious studies.

"If people have any misunderstanding about Indians and Hindus, all they have to do is think of Gandhi," Reid offered, summoning the most famous Hindu. Reid added that he also was confused until he befriended Indians in college, giving them rides to campus in the Utah snow. He still keeps a parting gift, a statuette of Gandhi, in his Capitol office.

"It speaks well of our country that someone representing the faith of about a billion people comes here and can speak in communication with our heavenly father regarding peace," he said. "I'm thankful that he was able to offer this prayer of peace in the United States Capitol. And I say to everyone concerned, think of Gandhi."

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