DRAPER — Summum, a Salt Lake City-based religion founded in 1975, says it wants to get in on a deal to put a seminary building on land reserved for that purpose at a high school being built in Draper.
In a letter to the Canyons School District board Aug. 4, Su Menu, the president of Summum, wrote, "Please provide us all information about the process for purchasing the land, when it will be available, the cost, etc."
In response, the Canyons School District says it may discuss the issue Aug. 16 at its next board meeting "in closed session, as allowed under the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act."
But Salt Lake attorney Brian Barnard, who represents Summum, says that will be just more of the same. He believes there already seems to be some kind of a special relationship between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the district that is outside of the public view.
"Now, they're going to have a secret meeting to talk about it," Barnard said. "This is getting darker rather than lighter."
Utah law allows students in public schools, grades nine through 12, to have "released time" during the school day to receive off-site religious instruction with their parents' permission. Nearly every high school or junior high has an LDS seminary building located adjacent to or nearby for such instruction.
Barnard argues that a government entity like a school district can only buy land for its own legitimate purposes. Then, if the government or school district no longer has any use for that property, it must be sold publicly just as any other surplus property.
Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook said the school's design was completed after numerous public meetings to get input on how to best meet the needs of the community.
"The Canyons Board of Education's intent from the beginning has been to reserve a portion of land for use by a religious organization for released time religious instruction," she said in a prepared statement. "The LDS Church has expressed interest in this property. The Board of Education may address this matter at its next board meeting in closed session."
Barnard responded: "Summum has also 'expressed interest in this property.' That is missing from the district's statement. Why didn't they mention that?"
He added, "Public schools deal with impressionable youth in a mandatory education system. For that reason, as well as because of the First Amendment, as a government entity, the school district must remain neutral on matters of religion and not favor one religion over another."
Canyons School District officials would not specifically say why the board's discussion needs to be closed, other than it involves a possible future property transaction for which a price has yet to be set. District officials would not say whether an actual offer of sale is to be considered in the session.
Toomer-Cook later noted that the board leadership had not yet set the agenda for such a discussion, and the decision as to whether the session would be open or closed is up to district officials.
Summum has been involved in other church and state legal issues, including a 2005 lawsuit against Pleasant Grove for not permitting them to erect a marker outlining its Seven Summum Principles next to one of the Ten Commandments in a city park.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Summum, saying their right to free, private speech in a public place had not been violated, because the Ten Commandments monument is a valid expression of "government speech."
"We want to share the Summum philosophy with young people," Menu wrote Monday, explaining Summum's interest in building a seminary at the Draper school. "Summum has long been interested in reaching out to the younger generation while they are still inquiring as to life and its meaning.
"These students will now so easily be exposed to the benefits of meditation, study and sharing our spirituality."
Barnard said LDS seminaries near Utah secondary schools should be planned and built similarly to the seminary across the street from East High School in Salt Lake City, which appears to be a former residence that had been remodeled, he said.
"That's how I understand that the seminary buildings have been acquired in the past," Barnard said. "They don't get some sort of a pre-arrangement with the school district and have it designed by the architect into the site plan."