DENVER — Crime, racial tensions and some of the worst traffic in the country — ranking just behind Los Angeles and San Francisco in a recent national study — make Denver a stressful place to live.

The solution? How about city-sponsored transcendental meditation?

Don't laugh. That's exactly what Denver activist Jeff Peckman proposed — along with 2,460 petition signers — with a ballot measure called the “Safety Through Peace Initiative.”

The law would have required the Denver City Council to address crime, stress and terrorism with measures such as piping soothing music into public buildings, serving only natural foods in school cafeterias and offering city-sponsored mass transcendental meditation sessions in schools and other public settings.

Though Denver voters defeated the proposal by a 2-1 margin Nov. 4, it's the latest in a major push to institutionalize transcendental meditation — a Hindu-based religious practice — as a government-sanctioned activity.

Public schools are the most commonly targeted venue for advocates of government-sponsored transcendental meditation, and it has already been implemented at a handful of public schools in Washington, D.C., and Detroit.

In September, advocates of transcendental meditation in schools held press conferences in San Diego; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Chicago; Minneapolis; Iowa City, Iowa; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Providence, R.I.; New Haven, Conn.; and Phoenix. They cited studies — including one by the National Institutes of Health — that indicate transcendental meditation is effective at reducing stress.

One study of FBI statistics shows unusually low crime rates in 11 college towns — such as Iowa City and Boulder, Colo. — where at least 1% of the population regularly practices transcendental meditation.

“I don't know anybody who isn't concerned about the rising levels of stress among students and teachers, so this is something that naturally will be considered, and in my view it's inevitable that [transcendental meditation] will be going into the public schools,” said Joseph Mario Orsatti, spokesman for the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.

The push by Maharishi University and others who advocate transcendental meditation in schools is raising red flags for those who worry about separation of church and state — a concept devised by an array of court interpretations of the First Amendment's establishment clause. If transcendental meditation is a religious exercise, some argue, it has no more place in the public schools than teacher-led rosary sessions.

“Transcendental meditation is based in religious philosophy,” said Dan Barker, public relations director for the Freedom From Religion

Foundation in Madison, Wis., an organization best known for trying to rid public schools of Christmas trees, Christmas carols and various other Nativity-related traditions. “The word ‘transcendental’ is a religious term, and there's no way around it. The word implies that there's some other realm out there, other than the here and now, and that's a religious assumption.”

Barker said any Christian family with children in a school that offers transcendental meditation should complain to the school board and the principal.

“If that doesn't work, go to plan B,” Barker said. “Demand that the school lead children in Christian prayer, and I assure you there's no way they will allow it. Then you'll have a case of discrimination and the meditation will have to stop.”

It's a sociopolitical/religious debate that's resulting in strange metaphorical bedfellows. Barker — whose organization is often perceived as hostile to Christian traditions — finds himself sharing concern with Fraser Field, executive officer of the Catholic Educators' Resource Center based in Powell River, British Columbia.

“Talk about a pagan conspira-cy,” Field said of Denver's ballot initiative and the movement to get transcendental meditation into schools. “They'll say it's not a religious practice. They'll say anything, because they're trying to sneak it in. But if it's called transcendental meditation, it's all about Hindu deity.”

Field speaks from experience. Though he's Catholic today, he spent 20 years as a teacher and practitioner of transcendental meditation. He studied in India with transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who popularized the practice based in ancient Hindu philosophy, in the early 1960s.

“At one of my classes Maharishi said — and this is a direct quote — ‘Jesus was a fool.’ He went on to explain that Jesus was foolish for dying on the cross, because it's needless for humans to suffer,” Field recalled.

While practicing and teaching transcendental meditation, Field said he and others became adept at getting into a drug-like state of dissociated bliss.

“You get into a state in which your need for Jesus Christ is much reduced or eliminated entirely. The focus is on yourself and your ego,” Field said. “The philosophy is that we, as humans, can be coequal with God. It's a very dangerous condition to be in.”

Field said the practice left him empty and in a state of personal crisis and darkness. Then one day in the late 1980s, in a stupor of despair, Field stumbled into a Catholic church in Victoria, British Columbia.

“I was suddenly enveloped in a peace that I had not known before,” Field recalled. “I knew I was in the presence of something personal and remarkable, but I had absolutely no knowledge of the Eucharist at the time. It was absolute experiential grace of the Eucharist.”

Is It Religion?

Orsatti of Maharishi University disputes claims that transcendental meditation is a religious exercise of any kind. While he said it's true the practice is rooted in Hinduism, he claims the Hindu philosophy is a way of life and not a religion.

“Prayer involves thinking,” Orsatti said. “It's contemplative and is associated with a system of belief. TM [transcendental medita-tion] isn't contemplative. It's a practice of bringing the mind to a state of inner peace.”

Orsatti said he's a practicing Catholic who graduated from St. Joseph's Preparatory High in Philadelphia and Marquette University in Milwaukee.

“TM is not incompatible with my Catholic faith,” Orsatti insisted. “Being a good Catholic involves living in accordance with the Church. Through TM I have found I'm more in tune with the will of God and the guidelines he has given us through the Church. I enjoy TM and I absolutely love saying the rosary.”

“Everyone gets a sort of secular introduction to TM, and it's a lie,” Field countered. “I was given the secular introduction, and very shortly after that I was taken into a room with a picture of an Indian guru and a table with a white cloth that held candles and incense. I was put through the Hindu ceremony of initiation — a deeply religious, spiritual ceremony that every practitioner of TM has to go through.”

Unlike Orsatti, some practitioners of transcendental meditation boldly claim it's a religious exer-cise — one for which they make no apologies.

“TM is a 100% Hindu-based practice coming from the Hindu tradition,” said B.V.K. Sastry, a professor of philosophy at the Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla.

K.C. Gupta, president of the Hindu University of America, views transcendental meditation as something like the rosary for Hindus.

“I view the rosary as one form of meditation, because the beads help you to focus, and while you're reciting the prayers you can focus on the mysteries,” Gupta said.

Field disputes that transcendental meditation has much in common with the rosary because it's more the worship of self than the worship of God.

“But it's absolutely a religious exercise and an indoctrination,” Fields said. “Some people refer to it as a simple relaxation technique, but there's a whole religious philosophy that gets smuggled in, and it is not of God.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.