For one Mormon teacher, worlds did collide

Denver Post/March 4, 2001
By Susan Greene

Colorado City, Ariz. - A mural in DeLoy Bateman's science classroom shows Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.

Such teaching aids are standard in most high schools. But not here in the hub of Mormon fundamentalism, where such an image can cause a man like Bateman to lose his religion.

In a community that believes the sun is God's home, Bateman teaches it's a thermonuclear reactor. To children who think Earth was created 7,000 years ago, he explains it's 4.5 billion years old. His collections of fossils and dinosaur bones blatantly challenge townsfolks' theories about creation.

But it's Bateman's lunar landing mural that most boldly confronts local teachings.

Because church prophet LeRoy Johnson prophesied in 1968 that man would never land on the moon, his followers and their descendants are certain it never happened.

As a teenager, Bateman listened to radio reports of Armstrong's July 1969 landing with Johnson, who was his grandfather. They agreed that the event, as the astronaut put it, marked "one giant step for mankind."

His granddad "looked at me and shrugged that he was wrong," in his prophesy, Bateman, now 46, recalls. "But over the years what he said has been twisted, exaggerated. He'd hate what they're teaching these days. He'd hate how they're using his words against what's true and what's right."

They, here in this Arizona-Utah border town, means leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - a Mormon splinter group that makes up the nation's largest polygamous community.

As Johnson's grandson, Bateman was preened to help lead the church's priesthood. The prophet handpicked him as one of the few young men sent to college to train as a teacher.

Bateman thrived at the University of Southern Utah, where he enrolled in extra classes and audited even more to "soak up everything I couldn't learn back home." He took a special interest in the sciences, amazed to find that he could count tree rings dating back to the time before Christ. He was thrilled - and shaken.

"For the first time in my life, a lot of questions in my mind were answered," he recalls. "But how do you cope with that kind of belief? It doesn't really work with the religion." Bateman dutifully returned home after graduation, and for the past 17 years has taught high school biology, physiology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, life science, earth science, general science, electronics and physical education. He is known among current and former students as "Mr. Dee," a teacher who assigns too much homework and gives too many tests, but whose enthusiasm for learning is contagious.

"I figure this room is the only place in the world where they really have a chance," he says during an interview in his classroom. "They need to learn as much as they can here. This is usually the end of their education." For more than a decade, Bateman carefully tried balancing his teaching with his faith. Church elders rewarded him by assigning him two wives, with whom he has 17 children.

"I planned on being a fullfledged polygamist, having four or five times this many kids," he says. But science got in the way. Church brass, parents and even students increasingly bristled at Bateman's teachings.

"Some people thought I was an atheist for talking about the Big Bang," he recalls. "There's hardly a single item you can teach in the sciences that supports creationism. Atoms and molecules, students were giggling at me for teaching that. The very idea that I would talk about atoms and molecules was threatening to the religious structure."

"It started to feel like a waste of my time, like I was contaminating their minds," he continues. "I did not intend to give anyone any problem here. It was hard for me to know what to promote." Bateman found himself torn between two worlds.

He loves his community and the polygamous lifestyle his grandfather taught. He notes that "there's a lot of benefits to raising children here," including "no alcohol, no drugs and no premarital sex." He boasts that he has never tasted beer, wine, coffee or tea, nor taken even a puff of a cigarette.

"It's clean living here. I really value that," he says. Still, he came to resent what he sees as the church's increasingly cultish ways. "We were created with the greatest mind we've ever had in the universe. Why can't we use the thing? Why should "why' be a forbidden word here?" he says.

He also objected to changes in church hierarchy - particularly a move by Johnson's successor, tax attorney Rulon Jeffs, who proclaimed himself the church's sole prophet and dismantled its longstanding council of seven apostles. Jeffs, now 92, since has handed much of his power to his reclusive son, Warren Jeffs, whom Bateman considers a despot.

"The man is a god. You don't challenge that," Bateman says. "We're looking more like a Hitlertype operation than a democracy." Warren Jeffs would not be interviewed for this story.

Bateman grew increasingly frustrated over the past several years as he says church leaders pulled teenage girls out of school to be married, usually to much older men.

"When Warren hit, we hardly had any high school girls left," he says. "One day, they'd be in the classroom and the next day they'd have disappeared. It didn't take long before I'd see them walking around pregnant."

Bateman broke from the church in 1996. Painfully, he asked his junior wife to leave their home, saying he could no longer justify polygamy outside the church structure. He says the Jeffs sent his senior wife's mother "to take her away and reassign her to another man." She refused to leave.

"I'm pretty sour about their intrusion into my family," he says of church leaders. The disenchantment apparently was mutual.

Incensed by Bateman's teachings, Warren Jeffs last summer urged families to pull their kids from public school. Church members must disassociate themselves from nonbelievers, he preached, if they want to reach the celestial kingdom - heaven.

"Jeffs didn't like that they couldn't teach religion in school," says Mohave County schools Superintendent Mike File. "Parents felt that if they didn't pull their kids out they'd be excommunicated." High school enrollment here dwindled from 238 students last year to 31 students in September. Bateman says several church members remain on the school district payroll, but aren't actually working. He and a few of his colleagues have complained.

"We've been contacting the state and everybody claims they'll come and check out what's going on. But nobody ever shows up," he complains. The Arizona attorney general's office is investigating payroll fraud here, File says, but officials won't comment on the probe.

File says his office has no authority to stop the mass exodus, nor to monitor kids being homeschooled. Arizona law emphasizes local school control, and the Colorado City School District is run by devout FLDS members.

Since the disenrollment, Bateman says he's now much freer in his curriculum, able to teach apostates' children about evolution, reproduction and even space exploration without worrying that he's polluting young, religious minds.

"I felt like I was lifted of such a burden, like my feet weren't even there," he says. "When you've had somebody think for you all your life, you can't imagine the freedom of that."

But his newfound independence has had its price. He expects soon to be evicted from the home he built from scratch, but which he doesn't own because it sits on church trust property. His former students won't acknowledge him in a local restaurant.

And church leaders have told his three oldest children - who, ages 19, 21 and 23, are still active FLDS members - not to speak to him, even though they live only a few blocks away. "My own kids were taught that I'm the son of Lucifer. Can you imagine?" he says.

Since Jeffs' edict, Bateman has worked out an arrangement with the church whereby he and his other children are able to visit the older kids once a week for five minutes outside their houses.

"We're not allowed to go into their homes because we're apostates and we would desecrate them," he says. "So they come out and we give them hugs and kisses, then we load back up and go.

"It kind of ties your stomach in a knot." Bateman is both proud and regretful of his long journey from his church.

"Mostly, I feel like I'm onto the truth with all this," he says, pointing to his periodic tables, arrowheads and petri dishes. "But some days, I'll be honest, I would love somebody to convince me that there is a God."

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