BISMARCK — A handful of North Dakota Republican lawmakers abstained from a Hindu prayer that opened the House's floor session Tuesday, April 2, with one legislator describing his actions as a form of quiet protest.
Minot Republican Rep. Jeff Hoverson, a Lutheran pastor, sat in the back of the House chamber during Rajan Zed's prayer while other lawmakers stood at their desks. He told reporters afterward that the state's constitution "does not refer to a Hindu god. It refers to ... the one true God."
Hoverson said he met Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism based in Reno, Nev., and told him of his plans but said it was "nothing personal." Standing on the House floor following the afternoon floor session, he held up a cellphone photo showing the two men smiling and shaking hands.
"I accept him, but I don't want to be compelled to pray to a false god," Hoverson said.
Hoverson planned to submit a letter to Legislative Management, a powerful panel of lawmakers, stating that he was "saddened" a Hindu prayer would be offered in the House.
"It took many of us by surprise and, I believe, was unfair," wrote Hoverson, a freshman lawmaker. He said he's a member of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren denomination, which he said is generally more conservative.
Lisbon Republican Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, who's Catholic, also sat in the back during the prayer. He said Zed wasn't "praying to the same God that I pray to."
Another two GOP lawmakers who stood in the back of the chamber, Dickinson Rep. Luke Simons and Kathryn Rep. Daniel Johnston, said they didn't have a problem with Zed giving the prayer.
"I'm not Hindu, so out of respect I just stood to the back," Simons said, a comment Johnston echoed.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he wished the lawmakers wouldn't have abstained from the prayer "out of respect for the gentleman."
Zed didn't immediately return an email seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.
Zed gave what was thought to be the first Hindu prayer to open a North Dakota legislative floor session in history when he appeared before the Senate Monday. A Bismarck Hindu woman said Tuesday she had given the prayer in recent years, though the 2015 legislative journal listed her under a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Reading in English and Sanskrit, Zed told legislators to work "with the welfare of others always in mind."
Zed was the first Hindu to conduct the opening prayer in the U.S. Senate in 2007, which was interrupted by Christian protesters, according to The Associated Press. He said he has given the prayer in more than a dozen state Legislatures and requested to come to North Dakota.
Though Hinduism is the world's third-largest religion, there were only about 340 Hindus in North Dakota as of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2015, the House canceled the opening prayer by a Muslim on Ash Wednesday. He ended up giving the invocation in the Senate instead.