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Salt Lake City's parochial profile - an increasingly non-Mormon city that hosts the world headquarters of the LDS Church in a predominantly Mormon state - presents a unique cultural quarrel:

The religious divide.

It shows up in classrooms and chapels, playgrounds and workplaces, public debates and private lives. It's the touchiest of stigmas, but one the capital's next mayor will have to do more than merely touch upon.

The chief reason: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands to be downtown's largest permit seeker in coming years as it develops its $1 billion-plus City Creek Center.

All the top candidates reject any notion of being lap dogs for or pit bulls against the LDS Church. Only one, Dave Buhler, is an active Mormon. Jenny Wilson and Keith Christensen call themselves LDS, but not active, while Ralph Becker is a nonpracticing Episcopalian.

But are there any guarantees that, if necessary, the new City Hall could rein in the church's real estate arm? Would the mayoral field reform liquor laws? Could the contenders pacify business owners and tourists alike, who may worry the capital is simply an ecclesiastical organ? And how will the new mayor mend the community's relentless religious gulf?

So far, the candidates are doing their diplomatic best not to fan any flames over faith. But as the LDS Church's influence expands in an otherwise secular downtown, voters may wonder whether the next mayor could ever say no to the church.

After all, when it comes to a policy stare-down with the church, no one in the field has.

Kick open the chasm door

Six years after The Salt Lake Tribune published its special report dubbed "The Unspoken Divide," at least one academic says the gap has grown.

"The next mayor is going to have an incredible challenge," says David Richard Keller, associate professor of philosophy at Orem's Utah Valley State College and director of the Center for the Study of Ethics.

Religious realities in Utah's capital, he says, make it "tougher" to be mayor here than in San Francisco, Chicago or New York.

For years, Salt Lake City has become more cosmopolitan and diverse - and, politically, more Democratic - even as thousands of young Mormons attending college suddenly call the city home. Some insiders suggest the Mormon youth movement - downtown now boasts LDS Business College and a Brigham Young University campus - someday could change capital voting trends.

"The real issue that transcends the sky bridge or the mayoral race is the fundamental question: What kind of city should Salt Lake be?" Keller says. "A celestial city or a cosmopolitan city? A city that reflects the values of one particular social group or the value of pluralism, which is fundamental to the American experience? The latter option is more economically viable, and, more importantly, interesting."

Outgoing Mayor Rocky Anderson agrees. To that end, he launched a series of public forums to discuss - and help heal - a religious divide he says is both real and serious.

"Sometimes you have to kick the door open even though you may not want to see what's on the other side," the mayor says. "I've been targeted by the most hateful, dishonest statements by people simply because I've tried to provide a place for people of all faiths - and no faith - at the table.

"The next mayor must continue to let everyone know they will be respected regardless of differences and that nobody gets special treatment."

Ministering the mall

Salt Lake City's top pol will face an immediate test as she or he ushers in an unprecedented mall makeover.

But while the church's City Creek Center is both a massive investment and a "magnificent" downtown addition, the candidates insist its owner will receive no special favors during the five-year affair. Well, except for fringe hopeful Rainer Huck, who says that, in his administration, "the Mormons will get what they want with no questions asked."

There would be "no preferential treatment," vows Christensen, a business owner. "I will ask the LDS Church to be just like any other corporate citizen. And, on the religious side, I would treat them like any other faith-based organization, with fairness. But you must separate the two."

Christensen, Anderson's anointed successor, says he also could reject a church request "if I didn't feel it to be in the best interest of our future." He points to his second term on the City Council, when he helped kill a west-side shopping center - dubbed the "sprawl mall" - which was slated to be built largely on church-owned land.

As mayor, Becker says he would treat the church like any permit holder, and keep all building negotiations "open and transparent." The state lawmaker, noting he has pushed to loosen state liquor laws, says he "will not hesitate" to decline any proposal he doesn't deem in the public interest.

Buhler also pledges no favors - "You have to follow the same rules as everybody else," he says - but adds, "I'd like to think we would facilitate any investment like this."

Buhler says he could tell the church no - "Absolutely. Them or their agent." And he points to the page and a half of amendments he and his City Council colleagues imposed before changing the general plan to make way for a Main Street skywalk.

Wilson also promises to keep City Hall cozy-free with regard to City Creek by working with the church and its representatives "in the same manner I would with any other developer - with respect but understanding that what we're doing is a business proposal."

And she, too, insists she could say no to church leaders. "Absolutely. And I will, I'm sure."

Wilson calls it inappropriate that the LDS Church pushed for the Main Street Plaza and says, had she been mayor, she would have opposed it.

"That was a failure by the city," she says. "We should have fought that one."

Still, despite urban-planning materials that condemn the proposed skywalk, the leading mayoral candidates have endorsed it to varying degrees.

Buhler goes so far as to say that only in Salt Lake City could a bridge be seen as divisive.

But Keller says the sky bridge "is not about the sky bridge. It's about obedience to political powers in the church."

Boost or banish bars

In 2001, Anderson attempted to amend city ordinances to extend club hours for dancing and allow bars to cluster downtown. He was rebuffed on both.

Now, three of his possible successors say city ordinances that control liquor need to be reformed. A fourth, Buhler, says he is willing to look at changes but "it hasn't been a high priority of mine."

Wilson, whose campaign headquarters is a former bar wedged between a tattoo parlor and a Bikini Cuts, would not hesitate. She says ordinances should be overhauled "quickly" to bunch more bars and restaurants per block, which she predicts will help convention business.

"What I see for the broader downtown is a very lively city, a very active night life," she says. "I'm talking about having a place where people can have a hamburger with their kids at 6 o'clock and will still be happening at 11 o'clock."

Christensen agrees. "We have to have an active, vibrant city after business hours," he says, labeling the liquor ordinances "outdated."

"Our blocks are very long," he adds. "It would be nice to cluster restaurants and taverns. . . . It would play better with the arts, and I would strongly suggest we change those ordinances."

Becker also says the spacing problem should be a priority.

"It is an achievable change," he says. "We want our downtown to be welcoming and inviting . . . and the present liquor laws unnecessarily restrict the location of liquor-serving establishments."

Despite the enthusiasm, such liquor-law reform must clear the Mormon-dominated City Council, which has been a brick wall on the issue. And amending private-club rules, which Anderson calls embarrassing and "an insult to those that are not of the [LDS] faith," must be done by the Legislature - which often takes its cues on booze from the church.

A spokesman for the LDS Church did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the outgoing mayor is rooting for changes, which he says would send an important message.

"I don't think there's any one thing that will send a signal that there will be more tolerance and respect for people of all kinds than to reform our liquor laws," Anderson says.

Keller, who recently moved downtown, concurs.

"Salt Lake should become the city it has the potential of becoming: a city of saints as well as sinners," he says. "A vibrant, pulsating, alive, cosmopolitan city."

Repairing thy rift

So how can a new mayor heal bruised feelings - exacerbated by a city tugged in two cultural directions?

After all, it has been more than 30 years since the city has had a practicing Mormon as mayor.

Simple. Keep religion out of public policy, the politicians pledge, and keep an open mind.

"It doesn't have to be the cause of this huge friction that we see fostered by some people," says Becker, who argues it is incumbent on the mayor to embrace the makeup of the entire city. "If we focus on who we are and what we want to become as a city, then the divisions that can get played up melt into the background."

Buhler insists the tone in the mayor's office must change. "You have to listen rather than talk," he says. "We should accept and celebrate our diversity, but really put a premium on unity."

Wilson says the issue presents a challenge but also an opportunity to shepherd an eclectic, interesting community. And she vows to exile religion from any decisions.

And Christensen argues progress is possible only when city leaders are open.

"We should accept each other," he says. "It's not healthy, it's not helpful. We're seeing horrific conflicts around the world based on religious differences. It's time we look beyond those things."

One thing is certain, according to Keller: Criticizing Mormons or complaining about losing the city to "Gentiles" serves no purpose. But the next mayor's leadership, he says, will be pivotal.

"The mayor has to try to lay down a fundamental assumption: Is Salt Lake City going to reflect LDS values, or is it going to be a pluralistic American city that welcomes some things that may not be consistent with LDS morality?

"It's a time of worry. Things could go either way."

On Xxxxxxxxx:

I've been targeted by the most hateful, dishonest statements by people simply because I've tried to provide a place for people of all faiths - and no faith - at the table. The next mayor must continue to let everyone know they will be respected regardless of differences and that nobody gets special treatment.

-Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson

Salt Lake should become the city it has the potential of becoming: a city of saints as well as sinners. A vibrant, pulsating, alive, cosmopolitan city.

- David Richard Keller, associate professor of philosophy at Orem's Utah Valley State College and director of the Center for the Study of Ethics.

When to vote


* EARLY VOTING: Under way at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office and at city halls in Bluffdale, Draper, Herriman, Holladay, Midvale, Riverton, Salt Lake City, West Jordan and West Valley City.