I had a long talk with a friend and colleague about the experience of being not Mormon in the midst of Mormondom. One example this friend provided of a frustration with the institution of Mormonism is the presence of Seminary buildings adjacent to the campuses of public secondary schools and the existence of so-called “released-time” in which non-participants are ghetto-ized while participants receive their religious education without any additional time commitment on their part.
By way of confession and disclaimer, I have a memory of a ninth grade seminary teacher invoking the anti-Christ clause to eject me from class (I was preaching evolution in a rather insulting tone), and playing a tenth-grade teacher’s pious hopes of my eventual submission by using “released time” to get something to eat at the local diner until I was fully and finally ejected from the seminary program for truancy. (I went on to teach Institute classes part time toward the end of college in partial penance.) As far as my view as a parent, if we live in a setting where our children are offered “released time” at the relevant time in their lives, I think we would allow them to participate, though we would not push them to do so.
My friend takes his children to religious school on weekends and has discussed with inmigrating Mormons the practice of early morning seminary (so ably championed by Ronan). This, or a private religious school, strikes him as an appropriate solution to the tensions of “church and state”. The apparent use of adjacent seminary buildings to allow public school students to receive a private religious education through the use of school resources (having the public school handle secular subjects, providing implicit supervision to allow autonomous participation in religious training) he (and other non-Mormons whose children attend these public schools) find offensive.
I am sympathetic to his view. It would certainly feel like an exploitation of shared public resources for the benefits of the dominant religious body if the tables were turned. This strikes me as something like the Tragedy of the Commons, in which behaviors which are perfectly harmless when performed by a single individual have serious consequences when performed by many individuals–the simplest example is walking on the grass. Would something like “released time” be appropriate if adopted to accommodate a variety of minority religions? Is it inappropriate when it is an expression of majority power? On a less theoretical level, would it be okay were it not for events like the Bauchman debacle (in which pious Mormon students circumvented a court order to sing contested religious songs at a West High graduation in 1995, a public relations (and to my eye a moral) fiasco for the community), behavior which has poisoned perceptions of the church on other issues (and still hangs like the toxic cloud of pollution the natives euphemistically and dangerously call “haze” or “inversion”)?
I think I can also see the CES view, which almost certainly partakes of neoconservative belief about the religious basis of American society, a fear of the rising tide of secular liberalism and moral relativism, and a belief in the need to express one’s religion, even if one is in the majority. I also appreciate the desire of Mormon parents and students to enjoy the extra hours with family (or in bed) provided by having “released time” religious schooling.
I had a personal experience with issues like this outside the Mormon corridor. Some friends and I re-established the LDSSA when I was in college (it had been defunct for ten years or so, if memory serves). I had to make a special appeal to the Dean’s Office because of a longstanding policy restricting national groups from receiving college recognition (designed to avoid the exploitation of college resources by extramural organizations, a problem with many other groups beyond just the LDS Church) . The CES liaison (I forget the title, but he ran the Institute program for the metropolitan area) could never quite understand the issues and proposed that he would call the LDSSA officers for the college even after I explained that our charter excluded that policy explicitly. He quoted a policy requiring that the LDSSA be church-run and did not indicate a desire to modify that rule. Ultimately we were a fairly independent-minded (and intensely faithful) bunch, and we respected the contract we had made with the college (if I remember aright, we allowed an LDSSA coordinator to be called within the church but kept the governance independent, but I could be wrong. I know the officers were elected by other undergraduates). The CES fellow saw the policy as indicating some sort of secular discrimination, while I saw restrictions on fraternities and other nationally organized special interests.
So, are these situation emblematic of difficulties participating in a culture larger than a single religious community? Should the LDS church relinquish its claim on “released time” as a gesture of understanding and neighborliness to non-Mormons who share their public school system in areas of Mormon dominance? Or should we push to make something like “released time” available to everyone (e.g. by allowing Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Wiccan &c. groups to use Seminary classrooms for their own instruction)? Or is this simply an example of the friction that occurs when a single religious tradition is dominant in an area and can’t be helped?