Media spotlight misses Utah’s home-grown success story

Sunday, February 17, 2002

The Olympic flame burns brightly in Utah this month. But with Olympic light comes plenty of media heat.

Not that the good citizens of Utah weren’t prepared for some negative media digs about the boring nightlife in Salt Lake City or the pervasive influence of “The Church.” They’ve heard all the Mormon jokes countless times — and endured years of media myths about what it’s like to live in a Mormon-dominated culture.

Thus far most of the coverage of Mormon influence in Utah has stayed on the surface. Sound bites about the strange liquor laws, a few mentions of the old polygamy controversy, and lots of attention to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — but not much in-depth examination of what Utah society is actually like.

This superficial treatment by much of the media adds up to a missed opportunity. It takes some work to get behind the stereotypes, but it’s an important story. Not only is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the actual name of the “Mormon Church”) one of the fastest growing faiths in the world — it’s also one of the most misunderstood. This might not matter so much if anti-Mormon prejudices didn’t create real barriers for church members in American public life.

A couple of quick examples: There aren’t many zoning battles over the construction of Mormon temples in Utah. But they’re not uncommon in other states. And it’s certainly no handicap to be a Mormon running for office in Utah. But it can hurt elsewhere (as Orin Hatch no doubt discovered in the presidential primaries).

If the media wants to see the real Utah behind the myth, a close look at how religion is dealt with in the state’s public schools is a good place to start. Most people I talk to (outside of Utah) think “religious liberty in Utah” is a contradiction in terms. In a state with one faith in the vast majority, there can’t be much interest in religious freedom for other faiths — much less for people with no faith. Right?

Wrong. Here’s the reality: Utah has one of only two statewide projects in the nation focused on promoting religious liberty in public education (California is the other). Called the Utah 3Rs Project (rights, responsibilities and respect), this initiative is sponsored by the Utah State Office of Education and the First Amendment Center. Many of the state’s foundations — most notably the Eccles Foundation — have provided major support to extend the project throughout Utah.

What does the 3Rs project do? Using First Amendment principles, the project helps school districts implement policies that protect the religious-liberty rights of students — and that means students of all faiths and none. And the project prepares teachers to teach about religion in history in ways that are both constitutional and educational.

On any given day, a visitor to a social-studies classroom of a “3Rs” teacher is likely to hear a lively discussion about religion in history. But what you won’t hear are angry arguments about religion. And you won’t hear the teacher using her position to indoctrinate students — for or against any religion. Why not? Because the 3Rs classroom is a place where the teacher and students commit themselves to uphold the religious-liberty rights of everyone and to discuss their differences with civility and respect.

Religious liberty in Utah schools? If you carry around the popular image of Utah, that sounds like a “man bites dog” story. But if you don’t believe it, visit Butler Middle School or Edith Bowen Elementary School or Orem High School or any number of other great 3Rs schools throughout the state. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but clearly the First Amendment is alive and well in Utah.

Why Utah? Perhaps it’s because many of Utah’s inhabitants are descended from pioneers who suffered religious persecution in the not-so-distant past. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that Mormons face denial of religious freedom in other parts of the globe today. Or it could just be old-fashioned civic virtue in action.

Whatever the reasons, the success of the Utah 3Rs Project is a great story. Before the media spotlight shifts away from Utah, it’s worth noting that not all of the heroes and heroines are on the medal stands.

The hundreds of teachers, administrators, parents and students working hard each day to make the schools of Utah models of fairness and freedom under the First Amendment — they are real American heroes. If Utah can take religious liberty seriously, why can’t every other state in the nation?

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