N.B. legislature says no to one-time recital of Hindu prayer

Rajan Zed reading an invocation. Zed, who has delivered a Hindu prayer at state assemblies and city councils around the United States, made the offer to deliver the prayer at the New Brunswick legislature. (Rajan Zed's website - image credit)
Rajan Zed reading an invocation. Zed, who has delivered a Hindu prayer at state assemblies and city councils around the United States, made the offer to deliver the prayer at the New Brunswick legislature. (Rajan Zed's website - image credit)

The New Brunswick legislature has flatly rejected a request for a one-time reading of a non-Christian prayer at the opening of an upcoming sitting day.

Rajan Zed, who has delivered a Hindu prayer at state assemblies and city councils around the United States, made the offer to deliver the prayer.

In a news release, Zed said Speaker Bill Oliver and legislature clerk Shayne Davies turned him down, citing the existing Christian-only prayer.

"As indicated by the Speaker, our well-established practice dating back over a century has been to start each day with a prayer consisting of two separate invocations followed by the Lord's Prayer," Davies wrote, as quoted by Zed.

Legislative Assembly livestream
Legislative Assembly livestream

"At this time, the Assembly does not intend to deviate from this practice."

In his release, Zed, a resident of Nevada, called the rejection "a case of blatant unfairness, exclusionary attitude, discrimination, favouritism, imposing one kind of religious observance, and does not speak well of a democratic society."

Zed said in an email to CBC News that he made the request last November and made two earlier offers in 2009 and 2010.

Oliver responded in December, Zed said, that he would decline the offer "as we have rules of order that are followed and will not alter them, at this time."

Davies said the legislature would not comment.

Committee didn't get to discuss

Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, has recited Hindu prayers at assemblies ranging from the municipal council in the small city of Lodi, Calif., to the U.S. Senate.

Green MLA Kevin Arseneau, who tried in 2019 to replace the Christian prayers with a daily moment of silent worship and reflection, said the request wasn't brought to the legislative administration committee, an all-party group that oversees the assembly's practices.

Kanwal Chadha, the president of the ISKCON Fredericton Hindu temple, said the prayer would have been a positive signal to thousands of Hindus in New Brunswick.

"They will feel motivated and they will feel very happy about having our prayer [in a] session in New Brunswick," he said.

"If we have something which binds together, which will feel like we're in our second home, it will be good from the leaders in the legislative assembly."

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

But he also said he's not upset legislature officials turned it down.

"It would give some positive vibrations, it will help them make decisions, and it'll be pretty good if there are prayers, but if they say no, we are OK with that. … We cannot force anybody."

Naman Sharma, a director with the Hindu Society of New Brunswick, said he was disappointed with the rejection because the legislature is supposed to be a secular institution.

"If this initiative was approved, we would have welcomed this," he said.

Sharma said it might have been more persuasive if Zed had contacted the local Hindu community and asked them to make the request.

Always the Lord's Prayer

Each sitting day of the legislature opens with two invocations followed by the Lord's Prayer, recited in a mixture of English and French. A different MLA volunteers each day to do it.

The invocations "beseech" God to "replenish" King Charles "that he may always incline to Thy will and walk in Thy way," and to direct the work of the legislature "to the advancement of Thy glory" and to the welfare of the king and the province.

The ritual normally takes two to three minutes.

Arseneau's 2019 motion didn't go anywhere after both Premier Blaine Higgs and then-People's Alliance leader Kris Austin rejected the idea.

Higgs said at the time that the prayer would remain in place as long as he's premier.

"I respect everyone's individual views and rights and freedoms and religion, but there are some traditions we have that I think are important to New Brunswick and important to our process, and we have to retain them."

Liberals favour discussion

The Opposition Liberals did not take a position on Zed's proposal Friday, saying it should be discussed by the legislative administration committee.

"We as a party want the legislative assembly be as open, welcoming and inclusive as possible, so we would be in favour of this topic being discussed by the committee," house leader Guy Arseneault said in an emailed statement.

Various provincial assemblies have taken different approaches to the issue. Most use a non-denominational prayer.

Only New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island recite the Lord's Prayer in its entirety while excluding other faiths.

In Ontario, the Speaker recites the Lord's Prayer along with a non-Christian prayer from a rotation of other faiths. In Quebec, there is a moment of silent reflection.

Chadha said he'd like to see a rotation in New Brunswick.

Arseneau said while a silent prayer or reflection was his preference, "a diversity of the usage of that time would not be a bad thing at all. It would be a nice way of showing that the legislative assembly belongs to all New Brunswickers."

He said as New Brunswick becomes more diverse, the legislature should be reaching out to different faith communities, and Indigenous people, to invite them to be part of the proceedings.

Arseneau said the rejection's citation of "well-established practice" was disappointing.

"That's the response we often get when they don't know what else to say," he said, pointing out MLAs routinely approve changes or exceptions to traditional procedures and rules.

High court ruling applies to city councils

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a prayer at the beginning of city council meetings in Saguenay, Que., violated the charter right to freedom of religion.

The court said the state "must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief" and must provide "a neutral space" for all believers and non-believers.

It also said allowing religious expression "under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage" breaches that neutrality.

But the ruling explicitly excluded provincial legislatures, which under British parliamentary tradition have the privilege to set their own internal rules independent of other branches of government.

In 2001, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the province's human rights commission did not have jurisdiction over the legislature's prayer because of that privilege.