Monday, July 9, 2012

Sustaining The Brethren: Has The LDS Church Made Support For The New Provo Missionary Training Center A Worthiness Test?

Update October 12th: The LDS Church announced it will not pursue the proposal to construct a nine-story Missionary Training Center in Provo; updated post HERE.

An editorial entitled "Editorial: An invitation to fall in line", published by the Provo Daily Herald on July 8th, 2012, raises questions about whether or not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made support of a proposed nine-story Missionary Training Center in the Pleasant View neighborhood of Provo a worthiness issue under the guise of "sustaining the Brethren".

First, a short synopsis of the project is in order, since it's not been previously discussed on this blog. The project was first announced by the LDS Church in March 2012; it would replace the old Melvin J. Ballard Building with a nine-story facility that will house 16 classrooms, one or two large workshop rooms, seven to nine small practice teaching rooms, two computer labs and quiet spaces for reflection on each floor, and also a basement. The new facility would be completed in late 2014, and more information is available HERE.

Opposition to the project soon emerged, and since most of the local residents are Mormon, it can hardly be attributed to "anti-Mormon bigotry". Opponents are concerned that the 161-foot height of the structure is too imposing and will overwhelm the neighborhood, obstructing their views of the mountains and the Provo Temple looking from west to east, and from east to west losing the view of the valley and Utah Lake. A few even squawk about property values, which is a more selfish concern. Opponents also claim that BYU officials once promised in 1974 that the maximum height of any MTC building on BYU property would be four stories, and that all future building would occur on property east of 900 East.

One of the point men leading the opposition has been neighborhood chairman Paul Evans, who promoted the idea of constructing two separate five-story buildings instead. In response to that alternative proposal, MTC administrative director Richard Heaton explained that discussion had gone up and down the line from the MTC to the missionary department staff to the missionary executive council to the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency more than once, and it was decided that the construction of only one building would be the most economical use of tithing funds.

Now it seems like Paul Evans has abruptly abandoned his position in opposition to the project after a local stake president relayed an invitation from a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Russell M. Nelson, to support the Church's decision to build the facility. An excerpt from an email Evans sent to Gary McGinn, director of Provo city's Community Development department:

"On Monday June 25, 2012, I received an invitation from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ecclesiastical leader relayed from a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints...The invitation was to support the decision of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to build a 9-story building at the Provo Missionary Training Center. I accept the invitation."

This doesn't appear to be a fluke. The same Daily Herald article notes that a similar "invitation" has now been extended to other church members in the MTC area who have objected to the proposed building. On Sunday in the sacrament meeting of the Pleasant View First Ward -- the LDS ward nearest the MTC -- stake president Chris Randall read a statement from the pulpit that he said was a message relayed from Elder L. Whitney Clayton, area representative of the church for east Provo. It was a reminder that Church leaders had "carefully and prayerfully" considered the issue of growth and development at the MTC and had decided that the nine-story building should be built. It constituted an "invitation" to the congregation to "sustain" the leaders in their decision.

In response, LDS church spokesman Scott Trotter merely sent an email confirming that "local church leadership reiterated the church's desire to construct the building in support of its missionary efforts." Update: The Salt Lake Tribune has now made the Church's full statement available, and it also said that President Randall urged members to be respectful and civil to those who may have differing views on the project, and added that to suggest that this was an attempt by Church leaders to exercise undue influence is without merit.

Nevertheless, all of this led to the Daily Herald's editorial penned by Randy Wright on July 8th, which is somewhat critical of the Church and questions how the Church could suddenly turn a civic matter into a test of religious faith after previously telling its members that they were free to treat the MTC building height controversy as a secular, non-religious issue and could engage in the civic process without fear of affecting their church standing. The message Randy Wright got from the Church: Be engaged, but only so long as you don't contradict us.

That seems to be an over-reaction by Randy Wright. During the California Proposition 8 controversy in 2008, many LDS members worked publicly against Prop 8 without their membership being adversely impacted. Consequently, Paul Evans could have continued to publicly oppose the MTC building without impacting his membership. However, in Evans' case, there is an additional complication: He's a BYU employee, and BYU is an at-will employer. An at-will employer can fire an employee for ANY reason so long as Federal civil rights statutes aren't violated. So there is the possibility that BYU could have fired Evans had he persisted in his public opposition to the MTC building.

This sequence of events is part of a discussion on The Millennial Star entitled "Why Loyalty to the Church as an Institution is Part of the Baptismal Covenant". Some argue that if you have been to the temple, you have made a covenant to uphold and sustain the LDS Church. Since the Church is represented by its leaders, sustaining the leaders is part of the covenant, although there is room for some leeway on this. But some maintain that covenants involve promises to obey God’s laws, and that submission to the Lord's will rather that to church leaders is a key principle of the gospel.

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