Walsh: LDS amiss on voucher neutrality

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Correction: Pro-voucher spokesman Richard Eyre does not own private schools. He sells a pre-school curriculum known as the "Joy School." Rebecca Walsh's column in Sunday's Tribune misstated Eyre's financial interest.

Religion permeates Utah's body politic down to the bone marrow.

Interpretations, insinuations and intimations of what South Temple wants affect everything from liquor laws to health-care policy.

So it's no surprise that voucher supporters would invoke the state's ultimate political authority - the LDS Church - in their campaign to justify private-school subsidies. Mormon scripture and pioneer statements from the 19th century have been melded with privatization and secularization theory this election season.

At the same time, the voucher movement has somehow revived the career of Richard Eyre, Mormon parenting guru/uber-father, private-school owner and one-time gubernatorial candidate.

It's all code for: "Heavenly Father wants you to vote for vouchers." Shameless, but not unexpected.

What is disappointing is the limp response from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The future of Utah's public schools hangs on the outcome of November's referendum. The fallout could range from diminished education funding long term to the concentration of minority, special-education and low-achieving students in ghetto-ized public schools. But apparently that's not a "moral" issue worthy of parsing. Instead, church leaders reverted to the mealy-mouthed vocabulary of their biannual political neutrality statements.

"The church has taken no position on the issue of school vouchers," spokesman Mark Tuttle said. "Past statements by church leaders should not be interpreted to imply any position for or against the current issue."

It's up to voters - Mormon and non-Mormon - to read between the lines for meaning, for guidance in the voting booth. Voucher opponents will try to fortify the two sentences, interpreting the mush as stronger than it is. Voucher supporters will read moral wiggle room into the bland language. Rather than quashing clumsy attempts to manipulate LDS voters, the church's weak statement only allows the spin to continue.

It's already begun. Using reverse logic, voucher lover and amateur historian Paul Mero says the church's statement means LDS voters should "disregard any positive statements church leaders have made about public education."

Knowing the potential backlash, Parents for Choice in Education - the pro-voucher advocacy group made up of Milton Friedman devotees and conservative Mormons - has scurried for cover. Even new spokesman Eyre couldn't be found to talk about his faith and vouchers. And whoever paid for pro-voucher radio commercials quoting from The Book of Mormon has disappeared without filing financial disclosure forms.

But Mero, their one-time voucher lobbying partner and Sutherland Institute director, still unapologetically applies his version of 150-year-old church history to today.

"I'm not making stuff up," he insists.

Maybe not. But he conflates an era when Mormons were fighting for their religious freedom with the 21st century, when church influence in Utah's public schools is undeniable. He acknowledges trying to sway middle-to-upper-class Mormon voters. By invoking the Ku Klux Klan and robber barons, he's desperately appealing to the lowest motivations in some - a lingering persecution complex, disdain for government and longing for a return to prayer in school.

The ironic thread in all of this is the common knowledge that Utah's public schools are de facto "Mormon schools." Most of the teachers are Mormon; so are the students. With kids chattering about CTR rings and Articles of Faith, reading The Book of Mormon during free time and walking to seminaries around the corner from every junior high and high school, the church influence on public education is undeniable.

As a result, Utah's private schools have become a refuge for non-Mormon parents. The joke goes something like, "If you want to avoid a parochial education, send your kids to Judge High School."

That all could shift with vouchers. One theory is that private-school subsidies will allow nominally nonsecular - and publicly financed - charter schools to transition into Mormon parochial schools and pay for the development of new ones.

In the end, South Temple may be caught between church members who want to make money - and spread religious values, of course - in private schools, and the majority of members who still will send their kids to public school.

So, it remained silent, as the biggest moral issue of a generation passed it by.