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.

"When we are invited to pray in public settings we try to be as sensitive as we can to other faith groups that may be in attendance," she said.

While the issue is a matter of settled law in Utah, various municipalities approach the issue differently. South Jordan, for instance, has a formal policy regarding its city council's opening ceremonies.

Max Burdick, who was elected chairman of the Salt Lake County Council in January, said he wanted to make invocations a higher priority after news of Osama bin Laden's death on May 2 stirred memories of his visit to Ground Zero about six weeks after the terrorist attacks on the United States.

"I started thinking about my freedoms, all of our freedoms. It made me think more about my responsibility as an elected official. All of those things were heavy on my mind," Burdick said.

Prior to that week's county council meeting, Burdick stood and shared his feelings about 9-11 and troops finding bin Laden. He also shared "how important prayer is to me and it was something we hadn't been doing and I'd like to start it then and there. I did and I'm thankful I did."

Since then, he and his administrative aide have worked to ensure a diverse array of faiths offer the invocation or thought.

"It just gives a different feeling, mood and in my mind in a different spirituality about the meeting. I'm thankful those feelings came about. We're going to push forward to do it," Burdick said.

Salt Lake City does not have an opening prayer or reverence, despite a 1993 Utah Supreme Court decision that upheld its practice of allowing public prayer to open its meetings. The court said the city council prayer did not run counter to a state constitutional provision barring use of public money or property for religious practices.

"Funny thing is, though, after that decision was rendered by the Utah Supreme Court, there was some thinking that, 'We won but we didn't enjoy the fight. As we think about it some more, we think that prayer before government meetings have shown to be a very divisive thing,'" said Barnard, who, on behalf of the Society of Separationists, filed the 1991 lawsuit challenging the practice.

Stuart Reid, who was a member of the Salt Lake City Council during the events, voted to keep prayer a part of the council meetings.

"I thought it was fairly ridiculous we went to the trouble of taking the case to the Supreme Court and winning the case and after all the controversy then we voted not to have prayers at our City Council meetings.

"I don't think it does anyone any good to exorcise expression of prayer or religion from the public square. I think there's a place for people to pray in public and a place for religion in the public square," said Reid, now a state senator.

Tom Godfrey, who was chairman of the City Council when the vote to eliminate prayer from meetings took place, said even though the state Supreme Court had held the practice to be constitutional, he believed it was divisive. The city also had difficulty encouraging people of different faiths and beliefs to take part in its meetings.

"In Salt Lake City we had a better chance of coming up with diversity. Even then, the police chaplain (put in charge of scheduling people to offer the invocations) had a terrible time," Godfrey said.

"Fortunately, in Salt Lake, we saw the light."

Roselyn Kirk, another member of the Salt Lake City Council at the time, said the council attempted to follow the decision but it became a growing distraction as opponents of public prayer constantly monitored the council's actions to ensure they were complying with the Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that prayer in government meetings is permissible as long as it is nondiscriminatory and equally accessible to all.

"It was easy to get Mormon prayers, as you can imagine," Kirk said. Other clergy shied away from what had become a divisive, controversial issue. "We had tried to get people from other faiths but it just didn't work out."

Godfrey said an invocation offered by a Native American received a cool reception by some attending that particular meeting. "I found it very interesting, but I could see shock, concern and fear on the faces of some people in the audience," Godfrey said.

Reid some council members feared that religious representatives "on the margins" would come in and make a spectacle of City Council proceedings.

"My sense about it is, those things, if they happened at all, would happen on rare occasions. I don't think it's a justifiable reason not to allow prayer in public because you're afraid they'll say something you don't agree with," Reid said.

In the end, the City Council feared if it couldn't comply with the Supreme Court decision to the letter, it would face another legal challenge. "We decided it was not worth the city having another lawsuit," Kirk said.

That decision — not to pray — was controversial, too, Kirk said.

"A lot of people were not happy with that, either," she said. "There was one man who stood before the council and called us a bunch of cowards."

Barnard noted the thousands of different religions in the world.

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"Who's to say which one is right? There are religions that have been around long before Christianity, long before Mormonism. As far as I'm concerned, it's great these people were out there explaining their beliefs. If everyone shares their religious beliefs, maybe this world is a better place," Barnard said.

Wilde said the Salt Lake County Council encourages a wide array of people and faiths to take part in its meetings.

"We recognize there are many different religions and different gods the people pray to. But they all recognize that prayer is a good thing. That's the key thing we're interested in here," he said.

Email: marjorie@desnews.com