Separation of church and career in Salt Lake City

CNN/March 8, 2001
By Jamie Allen

Ariel Cassady didn't stay in Salt Lake City to ply her career in public relations and contribute her prosperity to the Utah economy. She could have, but chose not to.

Cassady was raised a Mormon in Austin, Texas. And when it came time to go to college, she attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She had high hopes for her new home. "I had always heard Utah was going to be some kind of wonderland for me," says Cassady, referring to the state's population, estimated at 60- to 70-percent Mormon.

But Cassady, 22, says she didn't find her wonderland. She says Utah members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were much different from those she knew back in Austin. They were "radical," she terms them, and unwelcoming. "As much as they tried to be religious and think they have compassion for people," Cassady says, "I found that they were probably some of the most judgmental people I've ever met in my life," she says. "It stank. It was disheartening."

She compares her time there with George Orwell's book "1984" and its Big Brother environment. During her education at BYU, Cassady was put on probation once for having her boyfriend sleep on the couch of her school apartment. So rather than stay in Utah on graduating with a degree in PR, Cassady packed her bags and went back home. She works for a firm there.

If you tell her story to people familiar with the business and social climate in Utah, some may simply nod in agreement. Some business leaders, politicians and former residents are saying with increasing clarity that the LDS church and its powerful position in the state may not suit everyone seeking a place to settle down and build a career.

The state has some great outdoors and top-level snow skiing. Also, there's that event known as the 2002 Winter Olympics right around the corner. Mired in a bribery scandal, the state is hoping to rebound with an Olympic Games that attracts business from international quarters. But a number of community figures say they believe the church may actually short-circuit the expected economic and career benefits of Olympic hosting, cramping Utah's business potential and recruiting power. Church officials say they don't agree.

Liquor laws

Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 -- under the leadership of Brigham Young -- as a permanent home for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Today, there are nearly 5 million church members in the United States. Common practices by Mormons include abstaining from alcohol and tobacco.

Salt Lake City, meanwhile, has transformed itself into a Rocky Mountain business center. High-tech companies like Novell and Iomega have set up shop there. Tourism is a big industry. And the Olympics, along with an international audience, are coming in less than a year.

What many consider conservative Mormon philosophies are plainly evident. The legislature is made up of a majority of Mormons, according the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. The church's tenets, some say, are evident in the state's liquor laws.

Liquor and wine are not sold in restaurants, and the number of liquor stores in Utah isn't determined by supply and demand, but by population. The recent census, which showed an increase in population in Utah, will allow more liquor stores to open.

'It really runs people off'

The laws are at the center of some veiled criticism of the church. Bruce Albertson, CEO of Iomega, recently was featured in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune. Among other issues, he pointed to the perceived Mormon influence on liquor laws, regulations Albertson says promote Utah as a less-than-diverse place to live and play. "I just wish they wouldn't run other people's lives," Albertson told the Tribune. "If they need to control those places (where alcohol is served) to make sure their church people don't drink, they have a bigger problem."

Josh Ewing, a spokesman for Mayor Anderson, says Anderson has been lobbying to have the laws changed for the benefit of business in the state. "He thinks that the liquor laws we have are outdated and they don't even serve the purpose that they're supposed to serve," says Ewing. "The main purpose that they do serve now is disheartening our visitors.

"We've had lots of letters come into our office from businesses that are adversely affected by this, especially the tourist and ski industries. It really runs people off."

'The church doesn't set liquor policy'

Michael Purdy, spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, says he sees no connection between liquor laws and the church. "The church doesn't set liquor policy for the state," Purdy says. "The state does and the legislature does. Are there a lot of members of the church here? Sure. But the church doesn't set alcohol policy and it would be unfair to say we do.

"On the flip side of that, if you say (the liquor laws are) a negative part of the environment," Purdy says, "I think there's also people that would argue it's a very positive thing, to not have some of the crime and social problems associated with alcohol."

Officials of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce decline comment. "Our board of governors doesn't have a position on liquor laws in Utah, so it would be inappropriate to comment on it at this time," says Larry Mankin, with the chamber.

'A deterrent'

But the liquor laws, in the opinion of critics, are just the tip of the iceberg. Some business leaders and politicos say they feel the laws are indicative of how the LDS church, on a larger scale, might be disrupting the recruiting of talented young careerists from other parts of the country. If the liquor laws are antiquated, the thinking goes, then Utah society might also be behind the times.

"(The mayor) thinks (the church's reputation) is a deterrent," says Ewing. "How large of a deterrent, we don't know. But we have heard from business leaders, including (Bruce Albertson of Iomega), that it does have a negative effect."

The debate about whether the church is scaring away business and talent is gaining volume. In reaction to the Tribune's February 19 story on the comments of Iomega's Bruce Albertson, a letter to the editor from reader Steve Provonost -- who, like Cassady, uses an Orwellian allusion in his comments -- was run in the March 7 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune. "It stands to reason," Provonost's letter reads, "that any hint of suppression of intellectual and personal freedom can and will have a chilling effect on an economy's ability to attract the best and brightest thinkers. ... With such attitudes common in the outside world, is it any wonder that local high-tech companies are facing an uphill battle recruiting talent from out of state?

"The prevalent head-in-the-sand 'we don't want anyone here who does not agree with us' approach is reminiscent of the cultural insularity of the Deep South during the civil rights struggle."

'A creature from Mars'

This is certainly not the sort of publicity mounted on the Web site for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, although it seems to be a theme uttered consistently by some people who have left Utah for other horizons. Robin Wagge, describing herself as a nonobservant Jewish woman, lived in Salt Lake for eight years. She had a successful career there, working as the communications director for the Olympic bid committee for the 1998 Winter Olympics -- which went to Nagano, Japan -- and as campaign press secretary for former Democratic U.S. Congressman Wayne Owens' bid for the Senate.

But Wagge, 49, says she never shook the feeling that she wasn't welcome, and she says she blames the Mormon community. She moved back to New York in 1994. "I think 'provincial' is the best way to describe it," says Wagge. "Of course, I'm generalizing, but the notion of anyone being from New York was more than they could handle. ... It was like I was a creature from Mars.

"I don't think the religion in itself is so bad," she says. "I just think it's almost fundamental that there isn't enough room for people to expand their horizons."

Cassady, meanwhile, says she can see how young, career-minded people might not want to live in the state. While the business sector offers opportunity, there's the matter of what a person does with his or her life outside work. Non-Mormons might find it difficult to build a life there, she says.

"Say you're single and you go there," she says. "Mormons won't generally date outside the religion. So if you are from a different religion and you're planning to get a job and get married, it's probably not a good place to do it just because you would have to be Mormon."

Purdy, with the LDS church, doesn't agree. "I think Salt Lake City is quite a diverse place as it is, however you measure it, based on religious affiliation or economic status or whatever it is," he says. "I think people that come here would feel welcome. "Obviously, as a Christian church, we believe in Christian values, and being good to your neighbor is fundamental among those, regardless of whether they're a member of the church or not," says Purdy.

'Going back 100 years'

Mayor Anderson, for one, was raised in Salt Lake City, but he's not Mormon. So, clearly it's quite possible to live there and excel as a careerist, even if you don't follow the principles of the LDS church. But don't tell that to Wagge. "I'd have anxiety attacks when I went down to BYU," says Wagge. "Going down to BYU is like going back 100 years."

Cassady, who spent four years at the school, agrees. "There were three bars in Provo and they were very sparsely populated. I shouldn't even say I even went (to the bars)," says Cassady. "It was eerie ... It's almost like you go back about 20 years."

Now, Cassady is fresh from an excursion to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, something some might consider an alternate universe to Mormon philosophy. "I can't believe I spent four years in Utah," she says. "It's amazing how much looser I am here."

Purdy maintains the church is looking forward to welcoming all visitors to the state, including those arriving early next year for the Winter Games. "The church's role with the Olympics is to be a part of the community that's hosting the Games," he says, "and we want it to be successful."

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