Members of the Central Salt Lake City Council of Churches have written a letter to Gov. Norm Bangerter, asking for his help in providing a sweat lodge at the Utah State Prison to accommodate the religious practices of some Native American prisoners.
Pastors from Presbyterian, United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Missouri Synod Lutheran and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America met Tuesday and discussed the matter, then sent a letter to Bangerter on Wednesday."As far as we are able to determine, there is no evidence that the states that have permitted sweat lodges have concluded that they provide a unique shelter for conspiracy or drug abuse," the letter says.
"Religion has always been subject to some control in prisons, and we realize that security must be a central concern, but we are committed to religious freedom in reality, not just in theory."
"We represent churches which have been a part of the life of Utah for almost 125 years, and we are aware of the problems of living as a minority in Utah, even as we are grateful for the concern of the LDS Church for religious freedom for everyone in our state. Perhaps our sensitivity to the needs of the Native American prisoners derives from our experience of occasionally having our own spiritual needs ignored or dismissed."
In 1987, six Indian inmates filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to overturn a prison policy prohibiting construction of the sweat lodge. On Thursday, the nation's largest Indian legal rights organization - the Native American Rights Fund - filed a friend of the court brief, joining the American Civil Liberties Union and the 180,000 member Navajo Nation in their support of the suit.
Utah prison officials have refused to allow the structure, which is used by several tribes for ancient worship and purification rites. They contend it would present a security risk.