Battling forces of church, state

Utah: Some decry the dominance of the Mormon faith as a hindrance to free speech.

March 06, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - For years, the Salt Lake Tribune prided itself on providing a forum for the 30 percent of Utah's residents who aren't members of the dominant Mormon Church, which first settled the state in 1847 after an epic trek through the American West.

So, when the newspaper was sold by AT&T in December to Denver media magnate William Dean Singleton, the matter ended up in federal court, with the paper's outgoing management charging that Singleton was acting as a "front" for the Mormons to stifle free speech in the state.

"Absolute nonsense," retorted Singleton, a non-Mormon whose MediaNews Group paid $200 million for the paper and needs federal approval for the sale to be completed because the Tribune had long been in a joint operating agreement with the church-owned Deseret News.

But the fact that the charge had currency among some state residents reflects their deep paranoia over the pervasive influence wielded in Utah by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known. Ninety percent of state legislators, both U.S. senators and all three congressmen are members of the church.

"Utah is oppressive," said civil rights lawyer Brian Barnard. "That has to do with the makeup of the state, which is a direct reflection of the Mormon church. Utah was founded as a theocracy and it remains a theocracy."

Recent incidents buttress his point.

The state has hired an acknowledged virgin as its $75,000 "porn czar" - the first in the nation - to help communities set standards and prosecute the peddlers of books, movies and Web sites perceived to be dirty.

In Provo, dance floors are being swept clean by city fathers, who passed a law this month that makes it all but impossible for folks to imitate Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in public.

And when Salt Lake City Mayor Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson - a former Mormon - suggested loosening the state's highly restrictive liquor laws for spectators at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, church leaders issued a public rebuke.

Followers and the nation's leading non-Mormon scholar of the church say it's a mistake to blame church hierarchy for every perceived free-speech transgression.

"There is a distinction between people who are Latter-day Saints acting in ways they think the church would want and the church taking official action," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Tension between church and press date to the earliest days of the religion, founded by Joseph Smith, who was inspired after the angel Moroni appeared to him in a vision near his home outside Rochester, N.Y. Smith, who eventually led his flock to settle in Nauvoo, Ill., on the banks of the Mississippi, was shot and killed in 1844 in nearby Carthage, Ill., by a mob that stormed the county jail where he was being held.

He had been arrested after his supporters broke into the office of a local newspaper that had printed articles critical of polygamy, then practiced by church leaders. They used a sledgehammer to destroy the press and burned undistributed copies.

Brigham Young subsequently led the bulk of Smith's followers to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, where they established the territory that became Utah, laid out the streets here - they all radiate from the spired Mormon temple surmounted by a golden statue of the angel Moroni - and began spreading the church's gospel.

The Deseret News, whose name derives from a word in the Book of Mormon meaning honeybee and was the Mormons' name for Utah, dates from those pioneer days. While its editor is a non-Mormon, the church previews the paper's editorials. The Tribune was founded in 1871 by mining and railroad interests and for years was run by the Kearns family, which grew wealthy as cable television entrepreneurs. AT&T gained ownership of the paper when it acquired Tele-Communications Inc. in 1999, and immediately sought to unload the paper because it did not fit its long-term goals.

The papers had entered a joint operating agreement in 1952, with the Tribune as the dominant party. Today, its circulation of 135,000 is double that of the Deseret News.

"The documents that we have seem to suggest that the MediaNews Group and the Deseret News intend to have a different voice on the Salt Lake Tribune than has existed so that there is not the sharp public debate that presently exists in these two newspapers," lawyer James Lowrie, who represents the outgoing management, said during a court hearing in December.

The matter is pending, but the presiding judge recently ordered that Singleton and an executive he appointed be removed from the board that runs the two papers, and two long-time Tribune executives reinstated.

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