Utah Historical Society
Students line up in an old LDS academy in the early 1900s, before public education had the hold it does now.

In a state where about 70 percent of its residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it may seem odd that Catholics rule Utah's church-run schools.

The Catholic Church, claimed by about 8 percent of Utah's 2.3 million residents, runs about one-third of the parochial schools listed by the State Office of Education.

Granted, there are a few schools based on LDS teachings, including American Heritage School, erected across the street from the Mount Timpanogos Temple in Utah County. But they aren't church-sponsored.

Yet if the time ever appeared right for the LDS Church — or anyone else — to set up private schools in Utah, it's now. The Legislature is poised to weigh whether to offer income tax credits for private school tuition, which backers say would release pent-up demand for private education.

So why the restraint?

"It has long been the policy of the church not to consider providing elementary and secondary schools where there are adequate public schools available to our members," Elder Henry B. Eyring, church commissioner of education and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said in an e-mail interview.

But when the church was young, things were different. And Mormon influence in Utah education runs deep.

"The trend is influenced by the historical . . . more than people realize," said Keith Wilson, associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

History lessons

Utah's first schools were set up shortly after the Mormon pioneers fled persecution in the Midwest and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

In fact, the Charter University of the City of Nauvoo, set up in 1840 by church founder Joseph Smith, served as the foundation for the University of Deseret, precursor to the University of Utah and established by second church leader Brigham Young in 1850, according to "Encyclopedia of Mormonism," Vol. 2, edited by Daniel H. Ludlow.

Early Mormon schools could have been considered public schools in the sense they served everybody, were free and were supported by the community, writes William E. Berrett in "A Miracle in Weekday Religious Education," a history of the church educational system.

On the other hand, those schools did not take general tax dollars, Berrett writes.

Often, classes were held in LDS church buildings, said Wilson, whose dissertation was in church involvement in higher education in Utah.

And, naturally, they weaved LDS theology in with the Three R's.

Differing views

By the 1860s, Utah's mining industry had attracted non-Mormons, who didn't want to send their children to schools centered around LDS doctrine.

So the Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches established private schools for their members. The first, St. Mark's Episcopal School — which has grown into today's Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School — opened in Salt Lake in 1867.

But viewpoints differ on the motives for establishing competing schools.

Mormons viewed it as a move "to counter the Latter-day Saint influence in the territorial public schools and to win young Latter-day Saints away from the church," Berrett writes.

Sister Catherine Kamphaus, superintendent of Utah Catholic schools, has a different take.

"It's not so true that we would (try to) bring them into our schools so we could win them over to our faith," said Kamphaus, adding some of Brigham Young's family members were "tutored by our sisters."

"We tend to go where the Catholic population is. . . . It hasn't been to proselytize or evangelize; it's more evangelizing our own."

At any rate, the effect of the other denominations' schools created, or perhaps added to, divisions between what were termed saints and gentiles.

"When the Latter-day Saint communities became aware of the real objective of the denominational schools, resentment arose; the breach between members and nonmembers became even more pronounced," Berrett writes.

Church and state

Meanwhile, back in Washington, pressure was mounting to loosen the LDS Church's grip on governing the territory and crack down on the church's practice of polygamy.

The Edmunds-Tucker Act, passed in 1887, outlawed polygamy, dissolved the church as a corporation, confiscated its property and, among other provisions, dealt with church-state separation — including in schools.

Meanwhile, Idaho's constitution banned Mormons from voting or holding office, and the Arizona Legislature was considering a similar ban, as was Congress.

Amid such pressures, church President Wilford Woodruff ended the practice of polygamy in 1890, and he advised church members to obey federal law, paving the way for statehood.

"It's only when the church realizes they're not going to fight the government anymore, they're not going to win, that they say, . . . 'Let's dump the parochial schools and we'll go fully behind state-sponsored education,' " Wilson said.

That also meant turning the university over to the state to make sure "they didn't have any church control of the public university," Wilson said. Still, he adds, U. presidents were Mormons — often church authorities — until the early 1930s. The first non-LDS U. president was Art Smith in 1991.

Funding education

Around the time of statehood in 1896, however, the LDS Church did maintain a select few private schools, called "academies," Wilson said.

By 1910, most LDS youths attended public high schools, and released time, often called "seminary" today, was created to fill the religious education role, Berrett writes.

Indeed, by 1920, the success of released time (today enrolling 82,687 students, or more than 58 percent of the state's public high school students) led to the LDS Church closing up to eight academies, Berrett writes.

Brigham Young, Weber, Dixie, Ricks and Snow academies were turned into higher-education institutions still owned by the LDS Church, Berrett writes.

But at the onset of the Great Depression, church leaders decided, "We can't fund all this education, even the higher education,' " Wilson said.

The church turned over its junior colleges, Weber, Dixie and Snow, to the state, Berrett writes, but kept control of BYU, LDS Business College and Ricks College, now renamed BYU-Idaho.

Still, Sister Catherine, whose church operates universities and schools worldwide, is curious as to why the LDS Church, especially in predominantly Mormon Utah, stays out of the private realm.

"I've always wondered, myself," she said, adding maybe 2 percent of Utah Catholic Schools' students are LDS.

Eyring cites historic financial reasons.

"Providing elementary and secondary education for all of our members across the world would be extremely expensive. There are other uses for the financial resources of the church. . . . The church is always extremely sensitive to see that the tithes of the members are used judiciously," Eyring said.

The LDS Church does sponsor a handful of elementary and secondary schools in Mexico and the Pacific islands. Still, Eyring doesn't predict a change in policy when it comes to schools in the United States.

"As the church grows across the earth, there might arise situations where substantial numbers of members of the church (do) not have access to public education," Eyring said. "Those situations would be evaluated by the Board of Education of the church according to the merits of each case."

Private ventures

Members of the LDS Church, however, have gone on their own to sponsor private schools with an LDS theological focus.

For instance, Utah is home to seven "Kimber Academy" locations, with the main campus in Murray and a new location in North Logan, said the Cache Valley school's administrator, Tom Persian.

It also is home to Deseret Academy, which could benefit from church sponsorship. The school has struggled financially and is being sued by the Granite School District for more than $30,000 in back rent and utilities payments for a period when it occupied the vacated Holladay Elementary building.

While the LDS Church has made clear it does not sponsor the private business ventures of its members, Persian notes emeritus members of church hierarchy have dedicated and said they approve of his school.

"I would love to have the church have an educational system in all the stake buildings," Persian said. "However, it hasn't come to that point yet."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com