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Here’s where to find religious discrimination in the United States

Religious persecution and discrimination are major international issues, but in the United States it’s often found by lawyers in one type of government meeting

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

This article was first published in the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Wednesday night.

The recent release of a new rendering of the Yorba Linda California Temple raised an obvious question.

Why change the temple’s exterior design days before the groundbreaking ceremony?

I spent several years of my reporting career covering the city government of Provo, Utah. I’ve also read and written in the past about cities asking the church to change temple features. So I had an idea where to look.

I wound up spending an inordinate amount of time rooting around the Yorba Linda Planning Commission’s agendas and meeting minutes, including listening to most of the discussion about the height of the temple’s spire, which some residents wanted shortened.

That discussion and subsequent vote came back to me last week while I was in Washington, D.C., covering the second annual IRF Summit on international religious freedom.

“We’ve been focusing, and rightly so, on some of the most egregious violations of religious freedom,” BYU law professor Brett Scharffs said during a plenary session of the summit, “but as a lawyer, the place where we see the most discrimination, the most mistreatment of religion is in pretty unglamorous places like registration laws — are you able to register your religious group under the law or not? This isn’t an issue in the United States, but this is an issue in many other places, and it’s a big issue in a surprisingly large number of places.”

Then came the part that took me back to Yorba Linda.

“Another is land use and zoning,” Scharffs said. “We’re not going to make any docuseries about this. It’s not a very sexy or glamorous topic. But if you want to find religious discrimination in the United States or anywhere else, go to the zoning and planning meeting and see how different groups are treated there.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting any religious discrimination in Yorba Linda. Instead, it was a reminder that those powerful bodies, which operate mostly away from public scrutiny because they don’t draw much interest, have a major impact on religious liberty.

In the case of Yorba Linda, the city asked the church to reduce the height of the temple’s tower and steeple. The church did, then released the initial rendering. When it came time for the planning commission’s final vote to approve the design, some residents expressed concerns.

Commissioners and church representatives cordially discussed it, received input from city staff on the height of the highest steeple in the city, and asked the church to again reduce the temple’s height to match.

The commission voted to approve on condition the church would agree to the reduction. It did, and a new rendering was released.

The Yorba Linda decision is interesting. Unfortunately, others are examples of religious discrimination, as noted by Scharffs, who is director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

Some people use planning and zoning to deny religions the right to have houses of worship. You can read about some cases here.

Speaking of Yorba Linda, city staff asked the church to describe the differences between temples and meetinghouses. On May 5, the project manager for the church’s design team submitted a response, which was posted on the planning commission’s website. Here’s the full response for those interested in an intersection of church and government:

Dear staff members of the City of Yorba Linda:

As requested by city staff, the following is a letter describing the differences between Temples and Meetinghouses for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The church has provided the following general description of differences between the two building types.

‘Regular meetinghouses (chapels) are used for Sabbath-day worship services and weekday activities such as youth groups, socials, service projects and sporting events. They are open to the general public and visitors are welcome to observe or respectfully participate.

‘Temples are different. They are special places of worship where members learn more about the gospel of Jesus Christ and participate in sacred ceremonies. Temples are not open on the Sabbath, so that members may attend their local congregations. When a temple is first built, it is briefly open for public tours. Once dedicated, attendance is reserved for faithful members of the church who are ready to participate in additional gospel ordinances (though the grounds around the temple remain open to the public).’

The religious instruction within the temple functions on a set schedule. Members currently make appointments online to participate in the different functions. Functions include gospel instruction, baptisms and sealings (marriages). Temple staff assist and guide patrons through the different functions. Each function operates at different times/intervals which creates a controlled flow of people into and out of the building each hour based on the scheduling limitations and room capacities. This is different than a meetinghouse which has larger congregations of people coming all at once for a single service and then leaving all at the same time. Individuals and families can set up appointments to visit the temple. Meetinghouses hold services for a geographical area with services at a set time for the whole geographical area. As described above, meetinghouses also host social events such as receptions which do not occur in the Temple or on Temple grounds.

If there are additional questions about the differences between temples and meetinghouses, please let us know.

David Henderson, Design Team Project Manager, Principal.

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