The legislature of New Brunswick, in Canada, rejected an invocation request from a Hindu activist because lawmakers insisted the prayer could only come from a fellow Christian. It’s a startling admission of how legislators supposedly committed to religious neutrality have no problem letting Christianity be the default religion of the government.
Responding to Hindu statesman Rajan Zed’s request to read Hindu opening-prayer in an upcoming session of New Brunswick Legislative Assembly, the Assembly Clerk Shayne Davies wrote: “As indicated by the Speaker, we must respectfully decline your offer. 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…At this time, the Assembly does not intend to deviate from this practice.”
In other words… they’re just following tradition. And in New Brunswick, tradition means no non-Christian religions allowed. Zed nailed it with his suggested fix:
Zed suggested that it was time for the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly to move to multi-faith opening prayers. Since New Brunswick Legislative Assembly represented every resident of New Brunswick irrespective of religion/denomination/non-belief, it would be quite befitting in this increasingly diverse state to do a rotation of prayers representing major religions and aboriginal spirituality and including slots for the thoughts of non-believers.
If that’s not an option, then invocation prayers should be eliminated entirely.
Zed isn’t the first person to challenge this tradition. In fact, in 2019, Kevin Arseneau, a Green Party member of the NB Legislative Assembly proposed a motion to eliminate invocations from the legislature. He didn’t get the votes he needed to pass it, but his position was the right one. He told the CBC that the problem with Zed’s request was that it “wasn’t brought to the legislative administration committee, an all-party group that oversees the assembly’s practices.”
A local Hindu leader in New Brunswick also told the CBC that the invocation request may have been more persuasive coming from them. Either way, though, those were not the excuses offered by the Assembly Clerk. If Zed just needed to go through different channels, they could have said so in the rejection letter. They didn’t. So now their tradition just looks like religious bigotry.
What’s especially frustrating is that this issue appeared to be resolved by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015, with their Saguenay decision ending religious invocations at city council meetings. That decision, however, excluded legislatures in the provinces because they set their own rules.
Even if this attempt to fix a broken tradition failed, Zed’s request may have forced more people—including those in power—to say out loud what exactly they’re trying to preserve. Is it really tradition? Or is it Christian supremacy?
“Tradition” is the “Because I said so” of government. It’s a statement that’s supposed to end a conversation without getting into any pesky details, even when those details are extremely relevant. By forcing the legislature’s hand, Zed got leaders to admit things that sound awful when said aloud.