A couple of firsts happened this week in the tradition of having prayers open and close the inauguration ceremonies of elected leaders in Utah and the nation's capital.
Capturing national headlines was the selection of Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, to offer the invocation at President Barack Obama's public swearing-in on Jan. 21.
Generating less attention, but equally as nontraditional, was the inauguration of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, where a nonclergy Hindu woman delivered the opening prayer.
Evers-Williams will reportedly be the first female nonclergy member to deliver a president's inaugural invocation — what The Washington Post called "America's most prominent public prayer."
Obama asked evangelical Christian Pastor Louie Giglio of Passion City Church in Roswell, Ga., to give the benediction.
"The contrasting choice of speakers are typical of a president who has walked a sometimes complicated path when it comes to religion — working to be inclusive to the point that critics at times have questioned his faith," the Post reported.
For his first inauguration, Obama caught some heat for having megachurch pastor Rick Warren deliver the opening prayer.
Some commentators, particularly gay rights advocates, are still chapped about that choice, and call the selection of Evers-Williams a refreshing change that goes beyond the realm of religion.
"There is a substantial portion of the American people who will not accept the legitimacy of a black president 50 years after the March On Washington," journalist Charles Pierce wrote in Esquire. "It took Myrlie Evers-Williams 31 years to get simple justice for her husband's murder. It will be nice to hear a prayer from someone with so very few illusions."
Indra Neelameggham, a member of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah and the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, said when she was contacted by the governor's office she thought they wanted a Hindu priest or someone in the Hindu community more prominent than her.
"But they said, 'No, we want to ask you,' " she said. "I was thrilled and honored."
Neelameggham later found out an intern familiar with her charity work and with the Interfaith Roundtable nominated her.
She said she offered a traditional prayer from the ancient texts of Hinduism with some modifications to make it relevant to Utah and the occasion.
"May we be enthused with greater joy to enjoy this most beautiful and bounteous land that is Utah and America," stated a written copy of the prayer.
Elder L. Tom Perry of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve offered the benediction.
A spokeswoman at the governor's office said that going back 15 years, no nonclergy women had offered prayer at a state inauguration.
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