HAF Sends Letter to Kentucky State Senator Williams After Phone Conversation

Minneapolis, MN (November 4, 2011) -  A flurry of media reports cited HAF's strong objection to the words used by Kentucky State Senate President David Williams (R-KY) to describe both Hinduism and Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear's (D-KY) participation in a Hindu ground breaking ceremony.  Yesterday, Senator Williams called HAF's Managing Director and Legal Counsel, Suhag Shukla, Esq., to further discuss the issue and to clarify his statements.  Below is a letter that HAF has emailed and mailed to Senator Williams' office as a follow up to the phone conversation.
November 4, 2011
Dear Senator Williams,
I appreciate your call yesterday in response to HAF’s request for an apology and clarification of comments surrounding Governor Beshear’s attendance at a Hindu ground-blessing ceremony. If I may, I take this opportunity to summarize the main points of our conversation, which include: 1) the issue of participating in religious ceremonies as a state official in light of the principle of separation of church and state; 2) the issue of a Christian participating in a Hindu ceremony in light of your understanding of Christian teachings; and 3) there being no intent, on your part, to offend with your remarks, and that Kentucky Hindus should have confidence in your commitment to not discriminate on the basis of belief.
Separation of Church and State
I am encouraged by your stated commitment to the separation of church and state. As such, it is not “attendance” by government officials at religious ceremonies that you find to be problematic, but “participation.” If I understood correctly, you believe that Governor Beshear’s “participation” in the bhoomi puja, or Hindu ground-blessing ceremony, as a government official was thus inappropriate.
As I explained, removing one’s shoes, sitting cross-legged, or even having a red dot on one’s forehead, does not necessarily indicate “participation” in a ceremony according to Hindu practice. All of those things can certainly be indicative of “participation,” but are usually accompanied with other actions, including a declaration of intent to participate (sankalpa). Otherwise, all of these actions can simply reflect observance of respectful protocol, not only for attending Hindu ceremonies, but entering a Hindu temple or Hindu home. The conclusion you have made of “participation” is thus flawed.
The Hindu American Foundation has advocated for the separation of church and state since its inception. Accordingly, it is my sincere hope that your understanding of and commitment to this constitutional principle would also lead you through a similar exercise of concern if a Christian government office-bearer “participated” in Christian prayer in his or her official capacity.
Christian Participation in Ceremonies of Other Religions
Beyond your concern of state impropriety, you also felt that as a Christian, Governor Beshear should not have “participated” in the ceremony. You stated that it is your belief that there is only one way to God and that is through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as savior; that the Bible is infallible; and that all Christians accept both of these beliefs.
In response, I mentioned the countless Christians who felt compelled to reach out to the Foundation to apologize for your remarks, demonstrating that your sentiments are clearly not reflective of all Christians -- some went as far as to suggest that your remarks are a perversion of what Jesus stood for. When I mentioned the many Christians whom I know of, who, similar to Hindus, are religious pluralists, you said you believe those Christians do not believe in or understand the words of the Bible. I asked which Bible -- King James, Greek Orthodox, Gnostic -- to which you did not respond.
You also asked whether I would, as a Hindu participate in communion at a church. As I mentioned, Hinduism is a pluralistic tradition which acknowledges the existence of multiple ways (also in the form of traditions or religions) of relating, communing, or being with God and that God, Truth, or the Divine can manifest in different forms. As such, if my taking communion was not offensive to the members or teachings of the particular church and did not require me to convert or accept any one savior, as a Hindu, I would not have any issues respectfully “participating.”
No Intent to Offend, but Statements were Offensive
It is difficult to understand how an individual of your education, experience, and position would think that calling “gods” of another religion “false” and its practices “idolatry,” and stating that your hope was that “Hindus open their eyes and receive Jesus as their Savior” would not be taken as offensive. Beyond being deeply disrespectful, your remarks also wreak of an official endorsement by the President of the Kentucky State Senate of Christianity over Hinduism. Surely, you had not intended this given your stated commitment to the constitutional principle of religious liberty.
Your remarks have also undermined the confidence of Hindus in Kentucky that you would treat, serve, and respect all Kentuckians as equal, without regard to their religion. You assured me that, in your official capacity, you have not and would not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their beliefs, and that you would stand up for anyone who has been discriminated against -- all they need to do is come to your office. I am indeed encouraged by this declaration and it is my hope that this will remain your promise whether it be in your capacity as a state senator or as the governor.
Civil engagement, no matter how disparate the views, is imperative to better understanding and healthy democracies. Unfortunately, we hold two views that are irreconcilable -- one of religious pluralism and the other of religious exclusivism. You will not be able to respect my way as valid if you wish to remain true to your belief in only one way (your way), and I, in my firm belief in the possibility of multiple paths to realizing God, must tolerate intolerance. So long as such beliefs are not imposed upon or used to harass, intimidate, or curtail the rights and freedoms of others through mechanisms of the state, provocation, hate speech, fraud, duress, or coercion, we are all free to hold them in our great democracy.
I remain disappointed that you did not feel the need to apologize. While you say that you did not intend to offend Hindus, it is apparent that you did. Still, I appreciate the time you personally took to clarify your perspectives.
Suhag A. Shukla, Esq.
Managing Director/Legal Counsel