Last Sunday, Kristy Ragsdale joined two young Colorado Springs women as the latest victims of violence at the place most Americans consider to be a sanctuary their church.
Ragsdale's slaying in an LDS Church parking lot in Lehi differed from December shootings at an evangelical Christian church and missionary center in Colorado. Ragsdale's husband turned himself in after killing her just days after she filed for separation.
But she was shot in the parking lot, as were Rachel and Stephanie Works, teenage sisters killed by a gunman they didn't know as he fired numerous rounds outside New Life Church in Colorado Springs on Dec. 9, before an armed security guard shot and killed him.
While such killings have sadly become more commonplace in recent years, they always shock the communities in which they occur and leave myriad questions in their wake, many of them revolving around how to prevent such tragedies in the future.
In Utah, most major faith traditions have publicly declared their buildings to be "gun-free" zones, even though they don't formally register that status with the state, as a 2003 law directs churches to do annually. When the law was put in place, several leading clergy held a public press conference to declare that their buildings were off-limits to guns, whether the state of Utah declared them to be so or not.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is currently the only faith listed as prohibiting firearms on its premises on Utah's Bureau of Criminal Identification Web site, meaning those who carry a firearm into an LDS "house of worship" technically can be charged with trespassing. To date, no one has formally challenged the legitimacy of the gun ban by other Utah churches.
The law met with stubborn opposition in the Legislature, where gun rights advocates said the Second Amendment overrides any faith's restriction on the right of someone with a concealed carry permit to take a gun into a church. Lawmakers disagreed, and then-Gov. Mike Leavitt signed the bill.
Brandy Farmer, domestic violence program coordinator with the Utah Attorney General's Office, said Sunday's tragic
shooting shouldn't be used as an example of "how it could have been different" by those who favor packing heat at church.
"You simply can't guard against every possibility," she said. "It happened in a parking lot. Domestic violence is about power and control; one person needing to have control over another individual. ... It's important to realize that the killers are the only ones who are at fault for taking the victim's life and sometimes their own."
Even so, church leaders say security is an issue that can keep them up at night, as they ponder how to protect life and property in a world that seems ever more violent.
Those who have security systems in place often decline comment on them to keep them secure, and those who don't have them are reticent to say so.
Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the LDS Church has its own in-house security department dedicated to protecting life and property on its downtown campus in and around Temple Square. Security personnel and cameras long have been part of standard operating procedure. Bodyguards accompany top church leaders in public settings.
Starting with the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, metal detectors have been employed from time to time on Temple Square, and they are a permanent feature at the LDS Conference Center, which holds 20,000 people. The faith's temples are designed with restricted access in mind, but there are no formally trained, armed security guards at thousands of individual ward buildings, just as with churches of most other denominations.
There is something about having an armed guard at a church that simply runs counter to what a church stands for, say local pastors. "I think it would scare away the people we want to be comforting," notes the Rev. Bryan Lindemood, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church, located across from Liberty Park in Salt Lake City.
But because St. John's operates a preschool during the week, the Rev. Lindemood and his congregation are security conscious. The church has installed a system that requires parents and church staff to punch in a code when they enter the building; in this way, the staff can screen strangers before letting them in. And, says the Rev. Lindemood, because most of the preschool teachers are women, he makes sure he's the one who talks to those strangers sometimes at a distance from the building if they need help.
At Grace Baptist Church in West Valley City, pastor Matt Johnson makes sure it's men who stand at the back of the church to not only greet and usher but to simply be a presence that could deter crime or protect the congregation if need be.
"The men willing to do that would gladly sacrifice themselves for the congregation," Pastor Johnson says. But none of the men carries a concealed weapon, he says.
The men also keep an eye on the church parking lot during the service. Like other area churches, Grace Baptist is aware that thieves sometimes prowl church parking lots, hoping to find purses and other items in unlocked cars while the congregation is worshipping nearby. Thieves sometimes also roam through churches during services, and they've been known to steal keys from coats hanging in the hallway, and to then steal the cars.
At Grace Baptist's previous location, in what Pastor Johnson calls "a more difficult neighborhood," there was regular drug use in the parking lot. After being alerted, local police began riding through the the parking lot every couple of days, and that helped. At the new location, Pastor Johnson says, the parking lot is well-lit all night long.
The image of an unlocked church, where the downtrodden or bereft can seek a place to pray at any hour, is more Hollywood than reality now, at least in the Salt Lake Valley. Most churches keep their doors locked except during regular business or worship hours.
The Cathedral of the Madeleine, located in the heart of downtown, is open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., but someone needs what development director Laurel Dokos calls "a battery of keys" to get around the non-public areas of the church. And, in the sanctuary, "everything that can be nailed down has been nailed down," including the statues, says the Very Rev. Joseph Mayo. In the past, thieves have even stolen the copper drain pipes and have used crowbars to try to steal the church's poor boxes.
When the building was renovated 15 years ago, security cameras were installed in the vestibule and sanctuary. Several years later, someone climbed onto the confessional and stole the video camera itself; after that another camera was installed, out of reach. The cathedral employs security guards only during events when high-profile dignitaries have been invited, Father Mayo says.
Churches are refuges, but sometimes lightning rods, too, incurring the wrath of people suffering from delusions or deep-seated anger. The Rev. Steve Goodier of Christ United Methodist remembers the man who entered a former church he pastored, shredded a picture of Jesus and broke the cross off the baptismal font.
"If religion's been a problem, if there's been ritual abuse for instance, then they may come into a church and rage could well up inside of them," says Goodier.
While random acts of violence seem the most difficult to guard against, Farmer with the AG's Office said she encourages local clergy to request training through the Utah Domestic Violence Council on how to help members of their congregation deal with domestic violence.
"We do presentations for anywhere from five to 500 people, and we're always willing to help educate, particularly faith leaders. As a survivor myself, I really want people to understand" not only why victims don't leave and why they tend to keep the problem secret, but also what church leaders can safely do to help victims access the resources they need.For information on clergy training, call 801-521-5544 or see the Web site at www.udvc.org. Those who need personal help with domestic violence can visit the same Web site or call 800-897-LINK (5465).