First Hindu prayer will open Chambersburg town council meeting

Rajan Zed.jpg

A Hindu prayer will be offered before the April 13 town council meeting in Chambersburg, thanks to a request by a religious leader who offered the first Hindu invocation at the nation’s Capitol in 2007.

Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, emailed the borough April 2 asking for permission to offer an invocation at the public meeting, said an announcement from Jeffrey Stonehill, borough manager.

“He must be a pretty high-profile guy. How he found us, I don’t know,” said Allen Coffman, Chambersburg council president.

“We have no idea whether there is a Hindu population in Chambersburg but regardless, we are a tradition small town and we have honored Mr. Zed’s request because the Council of Churches had yet to schedule an officiant for the April 13 meeting prior to Mr. Zed’s request,” Stonehill said in a news release.

Stonehill said he expects the invocation to last no more than two minutes, and the usual attendance is about 10 citizens. The meetings are not televised.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Coffman said, adding that council hasn’t had complaints about this or other invocations, which are a long-standing tradition in the borough.

“This will be a little different. I’m quite anxious to hear why we were selected,” he said.

Zed, in a news release, said he will deliver the invocation from ancient Sanskrit scriptures, and then read the English translation of the prayer. Sanskrit is considered a sacred language in Hinduism and root language of Indo-European languages. He said he plans to start and end the prayer with “Om”, the mystical syllable containing the universe, which in Hinduism is used to introduce and conclude religious work.

Coffman said he doesn’t know much about the Hindu faith, but has been reading up on it and Zed. “He looks like a colorful individual. He has given invocations for the California, Nevada and Idaho legislatures, and also at the Capitol in Washington, DC for the Senate.

Chambersburg Mayor Darren Brown said perhaps there was a Pennsylvania connection because U.S. Sen. Bob Casey was presiding in the Senate when Zed offered prayer there in 2007.

Brown said he believes allowing Zed to offer invocation “reinforces that we believe in the principles this nation was founded on,” including the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.

“We carry that same message here. If he or any other religious leader wants to come and pray, it’s something we have available,” he said.

Zed says he promotes “Hindu, interfaith, religion, environment, Roma and other causes all over the world.” He made news in 2007, when he offered the first Hindu prayer at the Capitol, which was met with protests by some who objected to this non-Christian faith. His last prayer at the Capitol in 2014 reportedly had no protests.

Stonehill said the invocation was in place when he joined the borough in 2009.

It changed to a moment of silence after a Supreme Court case put the practice in question, but the invocation was restarted after the Supreme Court’s May 2014 decision in the Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“We have two choices. We either accept a faith to do a prayer or nobody does it. I err on the side of the majority,” Coffman said. The officiant is chosen by the town’s council of churches. “It’s all or none, as it should be,” he said.

Most people in Chambersburg are Protestant or Catholic, and there is a Jewish Temple there, Coffman said, but no Hindu temple.

Stonehill said Chambersburg’s practice of opening its town board meetings with a prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause when it is “consistent with the tradition long followed by Congress and state legislatures, the town does not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer, and the prayer does not coerce participation with non-adherents.”

“Chambersburg welcomes all faiths and ethnicities to our small town. We are a diverse and tolerant community and look forward to hearing Mr. Zed’s comments,” Stonehill said. Those who would like to offer an invocation may contact the Rev. Dr. Allie Harper at John Wesley AME Zion Church, who coordinates the schedule, he said.

Why have a prayer at all?

“It sort of sets the stage for our evening to get started off on the right foot. I certainly have no objection to it,” Coffman said.

Zed says there are three million Hindus in the U.S., and one billion in the world.