PROVO — When the Provo School District Board of Education votes tonight on changing elementary school boundaries throughout town, the decision will be made with consideration of "ecclesiastical boundaries."

Ecclesiastical boundaries refer to the boundaries of LDS Church wards and stakes.

Provo Superintendent Randy Merrill and Board of Education President Darryl Alder met with local church leaders and received information about ward boundaries in the Boulders apartment complex. Board member Sandy Packard met with local church leaders to learn about boundaries on Grandview Hill.

And when parents in the South Lakeview neighborhood learned that their boundaries were to shift, they asked the school district to draw them along stake lines, and the district complied.

The meeting is at 7 p.m. at the district offices, 280 W. 940 North.

Provo is not the first district to consider ecclesiastical boundaries.

In 2006, when the Nebo School District altered boundaries, district officials in public meetings discussed ecclesiastical boundaries, too.

In fact, the history of education in Utah is peppered with discussions about ecclesiastical boundaries.

Religious freedom experts' opinions vary about whether considering church boundaries is ethical or in the spirit of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from establishing religion.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., said that aligning school and ecclesiastical boundaries is problematic.

"This is the most religiously diverse country in the world," said Rabbi Saperstein, an attorney who also teaches church-state law at Georgetown University. "Sociologists tell us (there are) some 2,000 religious denominations and faith groups. So we are a pluralist country and the one place where people have the opportunity to meet different groups, they interact to learn tolerance and respect, is in our public school systems in America."

Provo's consideration of ecclesiastical boundaries, Rabbi Saperstein said, reminds him of a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case, Board of Education v. Grumet, in which a Hasidic religious community attempted to redraw the boundaries of a New York town to exclude non-Hasidic students from attending the town's special education school.

The Supreme Court tossed out a New York law that created the school district.

"I would have to say this is pretty clear: We don't gerrymander our governmental lines around religious parameters," Rabbi Saperstein said. "If you need to do that, you'll find school districts, governmental agencies, zoning commissions restructuring all kinds of lines in order to ensure there is religious consolidation and uniformity."

Religious freedom scholar Derek Davis said that Provo School District officials aren't necessarily breaking the law by talking with LDS Church leaders.

"It would depend on what their goals are," said Davis, former editor of the "Journal of Church and State" and now graduate school dean at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.

Provo's superintendent said that he didn't seek out the meeting with LDS Church leaders, but that an LDS stake president who's an advocate for Central City families — including those living in the Boulders apartments — arranged it.

"They were just one of several groups we talked to," Superintendent Randy Merrill said. "In general, they gave us insights into the social and family issues of people they serve in this particular community. Similar information came earlier from United Way leadership."

Alder, who attended the meeting with the superintendent and LDS leaders, said that the Boulders residents are assigned to six different wards.

The school district proposal puts them in three different schools, Alder said.

Packard, the school district member who talked with Grandview Hill church leaders, said that keeping peers together may help their success in school.

"When you have a situation when the kids don't feel like they have friends or a safe place, it becomes difficult for them," Packard said. "I'm think taking into account decisions such as LDS wards that can only help."

From the 1870s through 1890, Salt Lake City counted about 15 school districts, each a different ward. Classes met in ward houses, said Fred Buchanan, a retired educational studies professor emeritus at the University of Utah.

Secondary schools were private and divided mostly along religious lines. Elementary schools were quasi-public.

"Some of them taught the Book of Mormon," said Buchanan, author of the 1996 book, "Culture Clash and Accommodation."

A group of non-LDS territorial legislative leaders visited government leaders in Washington, D.C., and a plan was discussed to federalize the state's school system to ensure it was secular.

To prevent federal intrusion, the state passed the Free Public School Act in 1890.

"It was real public schools in the sense that although the majority of the children were Mormons, the vast majority of the teachers were non-Mormons," Buchanan said. "That was deliberate. There was a place in the school register with the student's name, the parents, the religion."

E-MAIL: [email protected]