SALT LAKE CITY — The governor's race continued to heat up Thursday with the suggestion that the Democratic candidate, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, wants to do away with release time in public high schools for Mormon seminary classes.
GOP Gov. Gary Herbert already sparked controversy earlier this week by accusing Corroon of being a hypocrite because he sends his children to a private Catholic school while professing support for public education.
Now, the governor is saying Corroon's call for tougher graduation requirements would force students to give up elective arts classes and release time to attend religious instruction in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I don't know that everybody in Utah is going to think that's a good idea to give up art and seminary release time to have this more rigorous curriculum," Herbert said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Channel 7.
Corroon, who recently unveiled a plan to improve public schools, said he supports allowing students to attend seminary during the school day, and that increasing the number of credits required for graduation from 18 to 22 would not prevent them from doing so.
The mayor said he and his wife chose to send their children to a private school because it is close to their home in Salt Lake City's Avenues neighborhood and offers religious education from their church.
Corroon said it was "unconscionable" to drag children into the debate and has declined to comment on current stalking allegations against Herbert's adult son. Herbert said he was not criticizing Corroon or his family.
The governor's repeated references to religion in the education debate are an attempt to deflect attention from problems facing public schools, including inadequate funding that "strikes a nerve" among Utahns, Corroon said.
"I would hope the governor is not trying to use the religious race card to divide people in this race," Corroon said.
Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, had no comment on that statement. But Don Olsen, Herbert's campaign spokesman, said the governor was not trying to bring religion into the debate.
"Heavens, no," Olsen said. "The governor did not single out and is not singling out religion. That's a ludicrous thing for somebody to say."
Olsen said the governor never specified that Corroon's children attend a Catholic school. "All we said was private school. He (Corroon) was the one who brought up Catholic school," Olsen said.
As for suggesting LDS seminary classes are being threatened, Olsen said the governor also mentioned arts classes. Seminary, he said, "is just one of the electives that impact a large number of those in Utah public schools."
The friction between the candidates in November's special election for the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term comes as a new poll shows Herbert with a commanding lead.
The Rasmussen Reports telephone survey Monday found 60 percent of likely voters support Herbert and 29 percent, Corroon. Only 8 percent were undecided, and the race remains "Solid GOP," according to the national pollster.