BISMARCK -- Republican leaders in the North Dakota House of Representatives said they canceled the opening prayer by a Muslim on Ash Wednesday because some members thought it was more appropriate to have a Christian deliver the invocation.
Dr. Nadim Koleilat, board president of the Bismarck Muslim Community Center, ended up giving the invocation in the Senate instead of the House.
Comments made on the District 24 Republicans' Facebook page - including one posted Monday that called Koleilat's planned appearances in the House on Wednesday and in the Senate next week "political correctness at its worst" - were brought to House members' attention Wednesday morning by a district resident who urged lawmakers to "oppose the prejudice, intolerance and ignorance that is encompassed within these posts."
District 24 Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City, was among those who objected to having a non-Christian deliver the prayer on Ash Wednesday.
"I mean, you had representatives on the floor with ash on their foreheads commemorating the day. And so then you're going to force them to listen to a prayer that they don't agree with? It wasn't very well thought out, I don't think," he said. "If it would have been a different day, maybe it would have been better."
The House invocation was ultimately delivered by Pastor Rich Wyatt of Living Hope Church of the Nazarene in Bismarck. He and two other pastors from the Bismarck Ministerial Association do the House and Senate prayer scheduling, and when one of them scheduled Koleilat on Ash Wednesday, "I thought nothing of it," he said.
But he said Legislative Council staff asked him to switch spots with Koleilat on Wednesday because they were getting pressure from "a bunch of legislators" in the House, though they wouldn't identify the legislators when asked, he said.
"We just basically switched to try to appease a few people, and they were very appreciative," he said, adding Koleilat delivered the Senate invocation "in the most professional way you could."
Koleilat, a urology transplant surgeon with Sanford Health in Bismarck, said in a phone interview Thursday that he was "not sure really what went on" but he had no problem with the House rescheduling him.
"My whole objective was to give the prayer and then to let the people listen to the word of God. I'm not into politics," he said. "I have no trouble. I really am grateful that they thought about the Muslim community and invited a person to come."
Senator Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, both said they heard no complaints from their members.
"We did discuss the chaplain of the day," Schneider said. "The result was every member of the Senate respectfully and silently took in the prayer."
House Speaker Wesley Belter, R-Fargo, said Thursday he didn't support the Facebook posts, and that the only reason for the change was because it was Ash Wednesday.
"It was just purely a Christian event, and so there were a number of members that thought it was appropriate to have someone from the Christian faith on that day," Belter said. "But he (Koleilat) will be invited back."
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, agreed it was more appropriate to have a Christian pastor give the invocation on Ash Wednesday, saying, "Obviously we don't have any Muslims in this chamber."
House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, a Democrat from Parshall, called the situation "terrible" and said Koleilat should have been allowed to deliver the prayer.
"We've got to respect all religions," he said.
District 24 Rep. Naomi Muscha, D-Enderlin, also said she had no problem with Muslim prayer in the Capitol.
"I don't want my religious rights taken from me, and you start closing the doors on one, then they can all be shut down," she said.
Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, said some senators questioned the timing on Ash Wednesday.
"But we kind of talked about it and said, 'You know, just pray to yourself if you have a problem,' " he said.
Kiefert said the comments on the District 24 Republicans' Facebook page mushroomed after one GOP volunteer posed a question Monday about Koleilat delivering the prayer, asking,"Does this amount to the worst form of political correctness?" Kiefert identified the volunteer, but he couldn't be reached for comment late Thursday.
A later comment stated, "If I went to a Muslim country we would not expect them to open their state with a Christian prayer. The US has a Christian foundation!!"
Kiefert said about six volunteers have access to the page, as does he, and they try to keep the page open for discussion.
"Christians are all the same family, and when they're beheading Christians in another country, I mean, people are bothered by that, and so there's some emotions that come into play," he said.
The posts had been removed by Thursday afternoon because "we just felt that it offended people," Kiefert said. He said he'll have to be stricter about what's posted in the future.
Rep. Ben Hanson, D-West Fargo, said lawmakers are expected to be tasteful on their social media accounts.
"We should have the same expectations of their local political parties," he said.
Wyatt confirmed that Carlson has invited Koleilat to return.
"I'm just praying right now ... that this doesn't blow up into anything stupid," he said.
Adrian Glass-Moore contributed to this article.
Reach Mike Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.