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In Hyperlocal Controversy, Concerns Over Mormon Church's Political Role

A zoning fight becomes "a matter of fasting and prayer in the temple." Apostle Elder Nelson intervenes.

Posted on July 9, 2012, at 2:44 p.m. ET

An illustration of the proposed nine-story building at the Mormon Church's Missionary Training Center.

As Mitt Romney's candidacy fuels an ongoing discussion over how the Republican's faith will influence him if he reaches the White House, a minor controversy in the heart of Mormon country has sparked a heated local battle over the role of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in secular politics.

At issue is a classic not-in-my-backyard fight: Some Provo, Utah residents are worried that a nine-story building the Mormon Church wants to construct on the campus of its Missionary Training Center will block their view of the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains.

When the construction project was first announced last March, local residents pushed for the community to be more involved in the planning. Residents circulated a petition, staged public demonstrations, and voiced their discontent in a town hall meeting with a church representative present.

For four months, the incident played out like any other NIMBY zoning conflict — until the church brought God into it.

Paul Evans, a Provo resident who was spearheading the efforts against the building, dropped his opposition last week in a letter to the city, citing his desire to pay deference to the church's general authorities, who Mormons believe are inspired by God.

Evans told BuzzFeed that his Stake President, a local ecclesiastical leader, told him that Mormon apostle Russell M. Nelson — one of the highest-ranking officials in the church — was now "inviting" him and other activists to abandon their effort as a matter of faith.

For Evans, that was enough.

"I absolutely believe they are servants of God and that I should listen to them," he said of Nelson and other church leaders. "I very carefully considered that counsel, and acted on my personal beliefs not to go forward."

Other local opponents to the building received the same "invitation" to defer to the church's general authorities, and the following Sunday the Stake President urged faithful obedience from the pulpit.

"The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have made this a matter of fasting and prayer in the temple, and they consider it to be an ecclesiastical decision," said the Stake President, according to one member who was present. "They feel like this was the right decision for the Church."

A church spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Some local Mormons have decided to continue with the cause anyway, but they admit the effort has fizzled.

The incident blurs the lines drawn by the Mormon Church itself in regards to when it is willing to assert religious authority in secular matters. The church has long held tightly to political neutrality, and says it only throws its weight behind an issue that it deems to have moral consequence (like same-sex marriage, or immigration). While the church's lobbying to get a construction project approved is unsurprising, some local Mormons were taken aback to see their religious leaders turn a local debate into a test of religious faith.

"I grew up thinking ecclesiastical matters were doctrinal, not local zoning issues," said Lorie Johnson, a practicing Mormon who declined the church's invitation to drop her opposition, and has now taken over the effort.

Johnson said her family, who lived in the same neighborhood, opposed the original construction of the Missionary Training Center decades ago, and that church leaders at the time explicitly threatened excommunication if they didn't fall in line.

She said she knows of no such threats this time around, but she added, "I believe those facts are generally known in the ward. So, the 'invitation' has to be viewed in light of that background."

Critics who worry that a President Romney would be susceptible to such ecclesiastical pressure from his religious leaders will surely see this local controversy as evidence that the threat is real. But Romney has said repeatedly that if elected, he would would not allow his church to sway his governing decisions, and there's never been a suggestion that church leaders had steered his political course.

Evans said in the end, the decision was his own, and that he was never threatened with church discipline. He also said his situation differs from that of Romney's.

"When you've been elected to represent people, I personally think that gives you the responsibility to act informed by your personal beliefs, but ultimately be responsible to the people you elected you," Evans said. "In my case, that ability to act as an individual is different."

UPDATE: The Mormon Church gave a statement to the Salt Lake Tribune addressing the controversy. In it, the Church says the stake president was simply answering questions put to them by local Mormons, who wanted to know what the top leaders thought of the issue:

"He asked for support but also urged members to be respectful and civil to those who may have differing views on the project... To suggest that this was an attempt by Church leaders to exercise undue influence is without merit."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.