The separation of church and state is alive in Utah. And the dominant LDS Church exerts overt influence on matters of state government far less often than either non-Mormons or Mormons believe, according to a religiously diverse panel of state officials.
That doesn't mean that a policymaker, regardless of religion, isn't influenced by his or her core beliefs, they said."No matter what you do to sort it out, a person who runs for office comes as a package," said Palmer DePaulis, former Salt Lake mayor and current chief of staff in the state Attorney General's office. "In that area, it's very hard to separate those things."
DePaulis, who is Catholic, was part of a six-person panel that discussed religion and government during the Sunstone Symposium Thursday. The panel focused on influence by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, since more than half of the state's residents are LDS Church members.
As mayor, DePaulis said the LDS Church never lobbied him directly.
Grant Protzman, former state representative, LDS Church member and Democrat, described LDS Church efforts to affect policy as "measured" and "very limited." The church does make a public statement on what it sees as key moral issues. And it does ask questions, which may "seem like a red flag" to some lawmakers. But the dialogue is good, Protzman said.
What some perceive as church control of the state could be chalked up to social norms, Protzman said. Because so many people in the state are LDS Church members, there's a strong sense of shared values and that does influence public policy.
And Protzman acknowledged that much has been said in the name of the church by those who present "an individual's private interpretation of doctrine applied to public policy." That leads others to speculate about official church involvement where it doesn't exist.
"The LDS church has offered formal input on less than a dozen issues in the 10 years I've been in the Legislature," he said.
Rep. Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake City, a Unitarian, agreed. Since he was elected in 1989, he said he has never been "directly lobbied" by the LDS Church, although "I have been indirectly lobbied, I think."
On the other hand, he has been "lobbied aggressively" by people in other faiths.
That doesn't mean the LDS Church has been uninvolved, he added. The LDS statement opposing placement of the MX missile in Utah "made the critical difference."
He describes the LDS Church as an elephant (in the nonpolitical sense, he emphasized) traveling through the forest. It's so big, it can be easily seen. But anyone who looks closely will see other animals traveling with the elephant because it knows where it's going.
The LDS Church used to be very involved politically, according to KUTV reporter Rod Decker, who offered a brief history. But in Utah, as the LDS Church "has grown stronger, it has participated less. Generally speaking, it has withdrawn from world affairs to some extent."
During her stint as director of the Utah Antidiscrimination Division, Karen Suzuki-Okabe, who is not LDS, said she found that "religion does not play a significant piece of the discrimination profile," but gender does. Now director of the state's Department of Human Resources, she said in her career she hasn't seen "any type of religious influence, either positive or negative."
Weber State professor emeritus Jean White said that the U.S. Constitution limits its comments on church and state to two lines - one prohibiting establishment of religion and the other forbidding interference with free exercise of religion.
Utah's Constitution, on the other hand, provides detailed guidelines to protect religious expression while emphasizing separation of church from state affairs.