State Financially Supports Religious Education in Utah

A recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune showed that lawmakers are facing a big conflict about funding in education.

The state has a new law: full-time public-school students may take up to two online classes if they are not provided by their district or charter schools. The district must fork over $700 per student per class when this happens (taking that money away from the local school, by the way), and it can only happen if a student has a full schedule.

Now up pops an ugly issue. For years, LDS-dominated Utah has allowed students to leave campus to attend a “seminary” class, which is religious instruction in Mormon theology, practice, doctrine, and so on. As other religions have entered the scene, the state has also allowed seminary instruction in those religions, usually Catholic, but these students are a small slice of the population pie.

And here’s the kicker: students taking these religion classes are considered to be carrying a full load of classes, so in essence, the state is providing financial support for religious instruction.

In other words, the school gets paid by the state for the time students spend off-campus in religious instruction.

Never mind the troublesome issue that a huge proportion of this funding goes to support one dominant religion.

The more difficult issue is that the state of Utah is financing religious education during the school day. The new law about online education is simply pointing up this very big problem. This is clearly a violation of the separation of church and state.

The Trib article quotes a state senator: “‘I think this practice should be done away with,’ said Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, of funding schools when students are away for religious release time, ‘and if anything, I think the education community should just be grateful for the windfall it’s received over the years the practice was put in place.'”

Madsen is right. The new law allowing online enrollment has simply clarified a serious  violation of the law that has gone on too long in Utah. Now the Utah legislature will be forced to do something about it.

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5 thoughts on “State Financially Supports Religious Education in Utah

  1. I couldn’t agree more with separation of church and state. I have always felt that way and it makes me angry when Utah basis laws and runs the state like an LDS only place. SEPARATION! That is how it should be. Religion should play no part in politics or laws but sadly for some reason it plays one of the biggest roles. There needs to be changes in that area but I doubt it will ever happen.

  2. Haters of religion, calm down, and get your facts straight.

    The way this article is written makes it sound like the LDS church is receiving state monies. That idea is entirely inaccurate. The seminary program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is %100 funded by tithes paid by members of the church. Just because Carbon High School, or Granger High School, or any other public high school gets a bonus 1/8th of a Full-Time student’s state-allocated funding for time the student wasn’t actually there doesn’t mean the LDS or Catholic or any other seminary program is deriving any financial gain from this. There is no alleged “financial support” for the churches involved.

    Furthermore, even if a change is made to the current laws, it will only mean that those respective public high schools will receive a fraction less money for each student who is attending seminary. It will not make any difference to the LDS seminary program. And for what reason? Will the money then go to a “better” purpose? Every public high school in the state would receive a fraction less money, and in turn we would have to turn around and increase how much we are allocating to schools per student in order to deal with the issues that would cause. If the students are not crowding classes for 1 period out of eight, and their parents are footing the bill for the time they are away, why exactly would we punish their respective high schools by decreasing their funding? The only losers would be the public schools.

    Healthy coexistence of a church with the state is not the same as favoritism of a church by the state. You can hate religion all you want, but in the end, the constitution was written to protect it. It does have a place in our laws and in our politics. Our laws and our politics are there to protect our right to assemble and worship however or whatever we please. Letting students of our public schools do that is not a violation of the boundaries of church and state, it is the state doing exactly what it was meant to do, ALLOWING THE PEOPLE THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP AS THEY PLEASE. It is a sad day for any country when separation of church and state is construed to mean separation from church by the state. Let the seminary students go to their seminary classes, and stop throwing rocks of contempt at people who are just trying to exercise their right to worship as they please.

  3. Scott makes an important point here: no money goes to the churches who supply seminary instruction during the school day. In fact, removing seminary would actually ding the schools, who receive about $700 a year per student per class, approximately 1/7 of the averate per-pupil funding, the same as what schools lose when a student opts to take an online course as provided by the new law. Depending on how many students attend seminary, school class enrollments may indeed increase somewhat if there is no seminary, and some schools may even require additional faculty to take care of the increase.

    However, Scott misses the boat on a couple of things. In particular, our constitutional right to worship as we please is not violated if Utah eliminates seminary classes during the school day. In states where no such release time exists, students attend religion classes on their own time. And certainly we can all worship as we please whether or not we are enrolled in religion classes during the school day.

    Scott also says that those who oppose such release time are “haters” of religion. I assure you I’m not a hater. Name-calling is always counter-productive.

    The issue then is not freedom of religion nor is it state-funded religion class. It is instead a question of what is appropriate during a state-funded school day. The online-classes law only brings this to the forefront.

  4. I suppose “haters of religion” is not the best characterization of what is going on here, and it was pretty late when I posted that, so in retrospect I would definitely use different words. That said, however, I am tired of people grudgingly waiting for any flimsy reason to criticize the way LDS Utahns choose to live their lives.

    I also take issue with the idea that the state owns my child’s time. This is not communist China, or Nazi Germany. If I want to home school my child, that is my prerogative. If I want to send my child to private religious-based boarding school, that is also my choice. If I want to home school my child for all but one particular public-school class which I want them to attend, I am a taxpayer, and as such, it is the right of every parent in America to do what they feel is best for their children. The idea that my children need to wait for seminary until it is “on their own time” is an atrocious mischaracterization of the kind of country we live in. The only time of ours that belongs to the government is if we are employed by the government, or else we have broken laws and need to serve penal time. So long as our children are not in either of these categories, then it is ALL “their own time,” and we as parents have every right to decide where to allocate that time as we deem best for our child, especially if we are paying for the system to begin with. The “state-funded school day” is the tax-payer funded school day, and as such is only here to serve the taxpayers. As a teacher, it is only my time if the child has registered for my class. This doesn’t exclude any religion or belief system from doing the same, and just because Utah has provided its citizens with a unique and revolutionary opportunity that most other states do not have, does not mean we need to crush the flower of progress in order to maintain conformity with other states.

    • Again, Scott here addresses a very important issue: the requirements and exceptions relating to compulsory education.
      As a former homeschooler who did indeed have my children attend band or theater classes during the day, I was grateful for such exemptions. The state of Utah has provided exemptions for release time for religious education since the 1960’s, a precedent now in question because of the further exemptions (with monetary requirements attached) for online classes.
      After teaching during the school day, I moonlight: I teach a part-time for a state virtual academy, where the school receives the same PPU as other brick-and-mortar schools in the state. I observe how various families handle the freedom of being exempt from the compulsory-attendance law: some do an exemplary job, while others don’t do too well, the same as homeschooling families across the nation, I would imagine. Yes, we have the freedom to choose: long live freedom! However, the old slippery-slope argument has raised its uncomfortable head with the recent discussion of release time and online classes, adding separation-of-church-and-state issues into the mix.
      I appreciate Scott’s fervent commitment to religious freedom as expressed by religious release time. It will be interesting to see how the legislature plays this out. I am guessing that they will not eliminate release time, for two reasons: the incredible power the LDS Church has in the state legislature, and the financial benefit that school districts receive when students leave campus to attend religious classes, since the schools still receive full funding for a full day even when those students are gone.

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