John Norman still remembers being excluded from birthday parties and Boy Scouts events when he was growing up in the mostly Mormon city of Logan, in northern Utah. The memories hurt.
Now a Catholic priest, Norman exemplifies the feelings and frustrations of Utah’s non-Mormon minority.
“They just didn’t recognize that their actions left people out,” Norman said.
Whether they grew up here or moved to Utah from elsewhere, non-Mormons say they often feel oppressed and must struggle to be heard.
“I think majority sentiment frequently ignores that which is different,” said Norman, president of Salt Lake City’s Judge Memorial Catholic High School.
Settled in the 1840s by Mormons fleeing persecution, Utah is now 76% Mormon. But just half of Salt Lake City’s residents belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Gentile population is growing as outsiders stream in, drawn by the rugged mountains and booming economy.
Non-Mormons are acutely aware of how their differences affect everything from who they date to how their businesses fare.
“It’s like the big gate in front of our relationship, and if I say ‘Yes, I’m LDS,’ the gates open. If I say ‘No,’ then those gates don’t open just yet,” said Claudia O’Grady, executive director of Multi-Ethnic Development Corporation, which builds affordable housing.
O’Grady, who moved to Salt Lake City from New York City five years ago, says that being non-Mormon--coupled with the fact that she’s a woman--is a barrier in business dealings.
“People of power in the LDS organization are men, and I feel I will never be part of that fraternity,” O’Grady said. “I want to feel equal, and I don’t.”
She comes away from business meetings feeling excluded and is convinced that if the church refuses to support a project, it dies.
Missionaries’ ambitious attempts to convert newcomers also upset some people. So has the church’s acquisition of a block of downtown Salt Lake City to build a semipublic park where it will be illegal to smoke, skateboard, organize protests or hand out pamphlets.
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging parts of the deal, contending that the $8.1-million sale deprives citizens of their 1st Amendment rights.
Norman and others say the divisions in the community have healed considerably over the years, but the church is the first to admit there is still a long way to go.
“We do have concerns, and we need to do better,” said Elder Cecil O. Samuelson Jr., a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, a group of church policymakers.
“There are some things we can change,” Samuelson said. “We can talk about the perceptions when a little child is the only one not invited to a birthday party. On the other hand, I don’t think you’ll find us changing our doctrine. We are going to continue to suggest that people marry within their faith because we think that is positive.”
Perhaps most shocking to newcomers is how deeply religion seeps into daily life--from small talk to clothing styles.
“In communities outside Utah, religion is almost a taboo topic,” O’Grady said. “Everyone has their religion, but you just don’t talk about it.”
In Utah, it’s common to be asked “Are you LDS?” or “What ward are you in?” People quietly check out their neighbors and colleagues for clues to their faith.
As the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics approach, the church also is battling to become more mainstream and erase the perception that it is a cultish, mysterious creed. Mormon temples, where the church’s holiest rites are performed, are off-limits to nonmembers--even to friends and relatives of a couple that is getting married.
The Games are likely to put a spotlight on some of the faith’s ugliest chapters, such as its polygamous past and the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood before 1978.
But the admirable traits also will be in full view.
Mormons’ squeaky-clean morals translate into squeaky-clean cities, safe streets and hard-working people. Their devotion is highlighted by a grueling tithing practice. Rich or poor, followers give 10% of their earnings to the church. Failure means banishment from the temple.
“We don’t believe that there is anything in our current history or in our past history that is worrisome, so we are grateful for people to get to know it,” Samuelson said.
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