Associated Press, Dec. 16, 2002
PROVO, Utah — A policy banning the city’s schools from planning events during the Mormon church’s weekly family home evening may be short-lived.
Civil libertarians are investigating to see if school officials went too far with their new policy barring all school activities on Monday nights.
“We’re going to have to look at this because the district’s decision raises concerns about a possible unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s establishment (of religion) clause,” Utah American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Dani Eyer said.
“The question is whether the district is motivated by dictation from the church or as a practical matter of 90 percent of the people being LDS (Latter-day Saints members) and wanting to stay home that night.”
Provo’s policy comes after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Gordon B. Hinckley’s plea last October for schools and others to abstain from scheduling Monday-night activities to allow church members to spend time with their families.
District administrators’ directive this week to principals, in effect, enforces that request. Eyer said public schools should not be taking marching orders from a religion.
Provo Superintendent Patti Harrington said she had talked to principals about keeping Monday inactivity sacrosanct at the school board’s insistence. “The religious statement by President Hinckley had no bearing on my decision,” Harrington said. “Did his statement influence the board’s decision? I would expect so.”
Board President Richard Sheffield maintains the board acted because there was wide public support for nixing Monday-night events after Hinckley’s remarks.
“We realize the importance of the separation of church and state, but felt as a board that we needed to respond to the groundswell no matter where that groundswell was coming from,” Sheffield said.
Provo is the only Utah County school district to ban Monday-night activities. Alpine and Nebo have encouraged principals to make that evening activity-free.
Provo United Church of Christ minister Susan Jackson says it is “wonderful” that Mormon leaders have spoken out because school activities too often interfere with religious practice.
Meanwhile, Provo Lutheran pastor Paul Olsen recalled his previous post in an Iowa town, where the ministerial association asked schools to stop scheduling events and assigning homework on Wednesday evenings traditionally reserved for church night.
“I was uncomfortable with that then and I remain uncomfortable with [such requests] now,” Olsen said. “I would no more want a board to follow my dictates or the dictates of the Lutheran Church than I would the LDS (Latter-day Saints) Church.”