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Decision about seminary land questioned by Summum attorney

Published August 22, 2011 2:17 pm

Common practice • Schools often sell land to LDS Church.
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A lawyer for the Summum religion is questioning Canyons School District's decision this week not to sell land for a seminary to anyone.

And, more broadly, he's questioning the practice of Utah school districts selling land to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to build seminaries.

A Canyons official, however, said Wednesday the decision not to sell property that had previously been set aside for a seminary in plans for a new high school in Draper was purely practical. And education leaders throughout the state say it's not uncommon or illegal for Utah school districts to sell land to the LDS Church so it can build seminaries near schools.

The district's board decided Tuesday in a closed-door meeting not to sell the land after Summum — a Salt Lake City-based religion that practices meditation and mummification — sent the district a letter this month asking to purchase the acre of property to build its own seminary.

Utah public high schools typically have seminaries near them owned by the LDS Church, the dominant religion in Utah. Last year, 83,634 of Utah's 150,572 high school students were enrolled in LDS seminary classes. Utah law allows students to be released during the school day, with their parents' permission, for religious instruction though they do not receive credit toward graduation for those classes.

"We don't have excess property out here to be selling," said Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook of the decision. She said land for a seminary had been set aside only as a place holder on plans for the high school pending further discussion by the board. "You start at the macro level, how should this property be [designed] for our students, and then when you drill down, you make decisions."

But Brian Barnard, a civil rights attorney and legal counsel for Summum, said it seems suspicious.

"Two religious groups express interest and suddenly, in a very short period of time, the school district says, 'Oh, it's no longer available,' " Barnard said.

Su Menu, president of Summum, said she thinks Canyons' decision was fair. She said Summum does not have any plans at this point to build near the new Draper high school now that the land is no longer available.

The LDS Church, however, will still likely make its seminary services available to Draper students.

"While the Church anticipates providing seminary opportunities for students attending the new high school, we have yet to announce plans for a new building," Scott Trotter, LDS Church spokesman, said in a statement.

And if the past is an indication of the future, school districts will likely continue to sell land to the LDS Church for seminary use.

Von Hortin, an audit/finance specialist at the State Office of Education, said it's common for districts to sell land to the LDS Church for seminaries. He said about half of the time, Utah school districts sell land to the LDS Church for seminaries and about half of the time the LDS Church buys land near schools from sellers other than districts.

For example, when the Nebo School District built two new high schools in recent years, it sold two pieces of land to the LDS Church for seminaries. Reed Park, legal counsel for Nebo, said those decisions aren't made until after the district starts laying out designs for schools and determines there might be extra land available.

Tracy Olsen, Nebo business administrator, said sometimes extra land becomes available because the district isn't always able to purchase the exact amount of land needed just for a school. But Olsen said it doesn't always work out that way.

For instance, the LDS Church had to buy separate properties near some of Nebo's recently constructed junior highs because the district didn't have extra land available at those sites.

"It's not like we said, 'Well, we're going to carve off a piece no matter what,' " Olsen said. Park said it's the church's responsibility to approach the district when it wants land.

The Wasatch County District also gave some land to the LDS Church when constructing Wasatch High School. In that instance, the district traded some of its land, to allow the church to expand its seminary, in exchange for a different former church seminary building for the district to use as its alternative high school facility.

"As far as I'm concerned, it was a good business deal for us because we didn't have to build a building," said Terry Shoemaker, Wasatch superintendent. He also noted that the seminary is helpful in the sense that it reduces the need for teachers and classroom space in the district.

In the case of the seminary near Jordan District's new Herriman High, the church purchased land from a developer, not from the district, said district spokesman Steve Dunham. He said the church typically only comes to the district looking to buy land as a last resort.

An LDS Church spokesman did not get back to The Tribune with answers to questions about the church's process for acquiring seminary land Wednesday.

Utah law does not address the issue of school districts selling land to religious organizations for seminaries, though it does require them to make land available to area municipalities before selling it anyone else, Hortin said. Also, he said, local district board policies typically require districts to get the best price possible when selling land, and generally districts advertise land for sale.

Barnard, however, said the situation doesn't seem right. "I wonder if they would have extra land for Starbucks," Barnard said of districts.

"School districts are public entities and if they are buying land to accommodate release time programs they're not supposed to be doing that to favor one religion over another," Barnard said. He said it seems like there's enough land on the Draper site for both LDS and Summum seminaries.

Menu said Summum had hoped to use its seminary to teach Summum principles and introduce students to a variety of religions, as Summum followers believe all religions have validity. She said while there are now no plans for Summum seminaries near schools, the religion is still considering the possibility and "if something happens to come up we would definitely look at it."




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