SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert strongly defended a Democratic Utah House member Monday against her GOP challenger's controversial mailer suggesting only he — not she — backs religious freedom.
Republican Todd Zenger says in the ad that he is the only House District 36 candidate who stands for "the free exercise of religion, conscience or belief."
Zenger, a Granite School Board member, is running against four-term Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, the only Jewish member of the Utah Legislature.
“Having worked with Patrice Arent over the years, I can say that while we don’t agree on every topic, I have always appreciated her dedication to preserving freedom of religion and conscience. She is a wonderful person who respects others’ points of view,” Herbert tweeted, along with a photo of him and Arent.
The Republican governor also tweeted: “I would refer anyone mischaracterizing her position on religious freedom to Exodus 20:16 or 2 Nephi 9:34.”
The Bible scripture reads, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." The Book of Mormon passage reads, “Wo unto the liar, for he shall be thrust down to hell.”
Zenger also quotes a Book of Mormon scripture known as the "Title of Liberty" in the flyer, saying please vote “in memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives and our children.”
Arent in a statement said she is "truly disappointed" that Zenger implies he stands for religious freedom and she does not.
"Because it is well-known that I am the only Jewish legislator in Utah and very active in my religion, many people in our Jewish community are hurt and upset by Mr. Zenger’s statement," she said.
Arent went on to say Jews around the country are feeling vulnerable since the fatal mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
"We should all hope that the lesson of Pittsburgh can be one of respect and acceptance of our differences, much like we have felt as the entire community has wrapped their arms around us over this past week," she wrote.
Zenger defended the mailer Sunday after the Zion Federation of Utah and others criticized him for it. He apologized Monday as the fallout, including Herbert's tweet, continued.
In a prepared statement Sunday, Zenger said he supports all religions, including those that espouse a belief in "one God, many Gods or no God."
"I especially champion the American right to choose one’s own beliefs and religion," he said.
"The mailer invited the people of our district of all religious backgrounds to vote," Zenger wrote. "The reference to 'our God, our religion' was inclusive of all those in our district regardless of their religious persuasion."
Alex Shapiro, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Utah, said in a statement that with religious freedom under attack, now is not the time to sow discord and discrimination implicitly or unintentionally, but Zenger "has done just that."
"An overt appeal to vote for or against someone because of their religion gives us pause," he wrote. "To imply that an opponent of a different faith may answer to or believe in another God seems both naïve, spurious and misguided when that person belongs to one of the three Abrahamic faiths that revere one God."36 comments on this story
Arent said she hopes that in the future, Zenger will refrain from "divisive and inaccurate" comments and focus on the issues facing the district.
Zenger issued an apology Monday evening.
"I regret any misunderstanding about my mailer. I apologize for any hurt caused by my choice of words. It was never my purpose or intent to be insensitive to any person, race or religion, or to malign any religion or race," he said.
Zenger said he recognizes the contributions people of all walks of life, religions, faiths or beliefs make to the community. He said he believes in showing kindness, compassion and respect to all people.