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Protesters Removed From Senate After Disrupting Hindu Prayer

Correction Appended

Three protesters were arrested in the Senate gallery this morning when they attempted to keep Hindu Chaplain Rajan Zed from performing the opening prayer on the the floor of the Chamber.

Zed, who had been asked to perform the first Hindu opening prayer ever to take place in the Senate, had been invited to Capitol Hill by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The Nevada-based chaplain completed his prayer after two women and one man were removed from the chamber and arrested by Capitol Police and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms officials.

Ante Pavkovic, Katherine Pavkovic and Christan Sugar were cited for unlawful conduct and disruption of Congress after shouting to Members on the floor to keep Zed from speaking.

After the arrests, Reid took the floor and praised Zed’s appearance in the Senate.

“I think 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,” Reid said. “I am grateful that he’s here. I’m thankful that he was able to offer this prayer of peace in the United States Capitol.”

Leading up to this morning’s incident, Capitol Police and Sergeant-at-Arms officials had become aware that there could be some resistance to Zed’s prayer.

One group, The American Family Association, a Mississippi-based organization that lobbies for family values, recently issued an “action alert” urging its members to call their Senators and express their displeasure with an opening prayer being lead by a chaplain from a religion that worships multiple deities.

“This goes against all history and all tradition of our country,” said AFA president Tim Wildmon on Thursday. “This fella does not even believe in one god as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence speak of. … So we object to this kind of prayer before the United States Senate.”

Wildmon said he did not know the protesters who disrupted the Senate this morning.

“The god of popular culture today is tolerance and multiculturalism and so I guess the Senate wants to see how far they can go with this idea that all religion and faiths are equal and the same,” Wildmon added. “Hopefully it won’t happen again.”

In response to Wildmon’s comments, Reid’s spokesman Jim Manley said, “Where in the world are the so called ‘family values’ in a statement such as this. … It’s unfortunate that some sought to disrupt such an important occasion.”

The lobbying group Americans United for Separation of Church and State condemned the actions of the protesters in the chamber.

“This shows the intolerance of many Religious Right activists,” Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said in a statement. “They say they want more religion in the public square, but it’s clear they mean only their religion. … America is a land of extraordinary religious diversity, and the Religious Right just can’t seem to accept that fact. I don’t think the Senate should open with prayers, but if it’s going to happen, the invocations ought to reflect the diversity of the American people.”

The Senate opens each workday with a prayer. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a Seventh Day Adventist, usually leads the prayer unless guest chaplains are invited to speak. Earlier this year, Zed lead prayers in both the Nevada State Assembly and Nevada State Senate.

Correction: July 12, 2007:
The article incorrectly stated that Chaplain Rajan Zed was the first Hindu to give the opening prayer in either chamber. Hindu Priest Venkatachapapathis Samuldrala gave the House invocation on Sept. 14, 2000.

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