Paul Rolly: Bountiful High LDS 'mission calls' deserve reconsideration
About 50 Bountiful High School graduates had the announcer at their commencement state the location of the LDS mission they had been assigned when their names were called to pick up diplomas. The incident, as chronicled by Tribune religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack last month, is the latest in a long history of cluelessness displayed in Utah high schools.
Mormon church leaders last year lowered the eligible age for male missionaries from 19 to 18, meaning many high school graduates this spring will go directly on missions before going to college or whatever other endeavors they choose.
The young grads at Bountiful showed their excitement by writing down their full name to be announced, but substituting the site of their mission for their middle name, such as John "Russia" Doe or James "New York" Smith.
After a while, the audience began to get it, and some were offended.
Stack noted in her blog that Bountiful administrators were unaware of the plan and would not have approved it. Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said the fake names were inappropriate and some students could feel ostracized for not being part of the group.
But many of the hundreds of readers who posted comments on the blog saw it as no big deal and that nobody should have been offended.
I doubt the kids meant to offend anyone and just wanted to share their coming adventure with those in the audience. But there is a long history of unintended consequences in Utah, when members of the dominant religion celebrate their faith at school as a group and don't realize there are many students who feel left out.
Doug Bates, who was then the general counsel for the Utah State Office of Education, earned the wrath of many legislators and other policymakers when he advised in the 1980s that schools should not allow prayers at graduation because they could be sued and would lose the separation of church and state argument.
To protest, some student graduation speakers blurted a prayer with specific LDS phrases to hoots and hollers from a defiant audience.
Two decades later, after Bates died, I wrote a column remembering that event and Bates' comments to me that as a faithful Mormon, he held prayer personally sacred and was offended that it would be used in such a circus-like way.
After that column ran in 2009, I received an email from a young attorney living in Texas who told me he was the graduation speaker who rebelliously blurted out that prayer at the Bingham High School graduation.
He thanked me for the column and the comments I quoted from Bates and said that after growing up, he realized he was being a jerk at the time and that those in his class who weren't of his faith probably were made uncomfortable.
It was one of the most heart-warming emails I have ever received from a reader.
Perhaps the students at Bountiful High will think about what they did, and the non-Mormons in their audience, when they embark on their missions and mature.