Prayer still plays a role in many public meetings in Utah

Published: Friday, July 15 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed delivers invocations from Sanskrit scriptures before the South Jordan City Council on July 5.

Photo Courtesy of Rajan Zed

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Councilman David Wilde feared religion was being squeezed out of public life.

So he was insistent that when Salt Lake County's legislative body converted to a council form of government that it should start its meetings with a prayer, invocation or some other display of reverence.

"Essentially, what the U.S. Supreme Court has said on this issue is that prayer in government meetings was about as American as apple pie. They've been doing it in Congress and the state Legislature for years. I was flabbergasted people thought it was so controversial for us to be doing it at our council meetings," Wilde said.

Nearly 20 years after a Utah Supreme Court decision that upheld the Salt Lake City Council's practice of allowing public prayer to open its meetings, many municipalities set aside time for an invocation, reading or thought at the start of their meetings.

Interestingly, Salt Lake City does not.

On a recent Tuesday evening, a Hindu statesman delivered Sanskrit mantras from ancient scripture to open the city council meetings of South Jordan and Draper. Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, also presented copies of Bhagavad-Gita to the mayors of the cities. Later in the week, Zed offered the invocations at the meetings of the Taylorsville and Layton city councils.

South Jordan City Manager John Geilmann said Zed "gave a marvelous invocation. He said it in Hindi and then translated it into English. He wore traditional dress. It was very nice."

"This was the first Hindu prayer we had had," Geilmann said, explaining that the city publishes a legal notice every six months inviting public participation. It also uses its website to encourage community participation in its opening ceremonies.

Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake attorney who has litigated two public prayer cases in Utah, said exposure to a wide array of religions and religious practices in the public forum is important.

"The purpose of religion, as far as I'm concerned, is to make the world a better place. Maybe letting city council members know there are Hindus who practice their religion in Salt Lake County is a very good idea," Barnard said.

Opening the public forum to prayer before public meetings means all faiths and belief systems must be welcomed. It also means that city council members and other elected officials cannot be the arbiters of what an acceptable form of worship or prayer is, Barnard said.

"That's the can of worms they open up when they start allowing prayer because it has to be available to everyone and everything," he said.

The Utah Legislature has long started each day of its legislative session with an invocation. The tradition, according to the acknowledgement Senate President Mike Waddoups sends to the men and women who offer the prayer, notes that "prayer promotes a spirit of respect, a unity of purpose, and reverence for our duties as representatives of the people of this great state."

Paula Tew, the docket clerk for the Utah Senate who schedules the men and women that the senators have recommended to offer the invocation, said the moment of reflection is welcome amid the hustle and bustle of the legislative session.

"Being up there and seeing the load that each legislator carries, it's just a great time to set all of that down for minute. If you're a person of faith, it gives you a moment to reconnect before you have to pick it all up again and deal with those burdens," Tew said.

Neither The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nor the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City has a formal position on prayer in public places.

Diocese spokeswoman Colleen Gudreau said Catholics appreciate the opportunity to profess their faith through prayer in public settings.

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