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Gay-rights group protests naming college center after LDS apostle Packer

Published June 4, 2013 1:07 pm

Education • Boyd K. Packer's comments make him an inappropriate namesake for family support center, Dem caucus says.
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A gay-rights group is protesting Weber State University's decision to name a new family center after senior Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer.

The Utah Stonewall Democrats say the center should not be named after Packer, who most recently stirred contention in April when he publicly warned against a "tolerance trap," apparently in referring to the legalization of gay marriage.

"To name something that is family-oriented in honor of a person who has such a narrow vision of what a family is, a vision that quite frankly excludes a lot of Utah families, is reprehensible in my opinion," said Bob Henline, a board member of the Democratic caucus.

The group sent a letter Friday to Weber State Board of Trustees Chairman Alan Hall, though a school spokesman said Hall had not seen it as of Wednesday afternoon.

An online petition pushing the university to change the name of the Boyd K. and Donna S. Packer Center for Family and Community Education had nearly 1,900 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

The family center is not a building, but rather a fundraising and support group for existing community programs. Weber State officials hope naming the center after the high-ranking president of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will drive up donations.

Such namesakes "either have got to have money they're willing to put in or the name recognition has to connect with folks that do have money," said Jack Rasmussen, dean of the College of Education. "There was no specific donation made by the Packers, but there's been a lot of money come in in support of that naming, a lot of kickback."

About a month after the name was announced, the center had raised about 75 percent of its approximately $1.25 million goal, he said. The money will support eight community-outreach programs, including literacy and parenting programs for underprivileged families, a new elementary charter school on campus, the Storytelling Festival and the Families Alive Conference. The programs are funded through private donations rather than state money, and will run as they did before the naming.

"This is in no way shape or form to suggest that it's only going to serve certain kinds of people," Rasmussen said. "We're not about that."

Packer's sometimes-stern sermons, though, have raised hackles several times in his decades-long service in the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the past, he has spoken against interracial marriage, called same-sex attraction morally wrong and declared the greatest threats to the LDS faith come from feminists, gays and intellectuals.

Rasmussen said most people served by the center "would not know or have an interest" in those comments.

"Only certain kinds of people would know about those remarks or worry about those remarks," he said. "A student whose tuition is being paid by someone in the center, I'm not sure they're going to lose a whole lot of sleep thinking about [the name]."

Boyd and his wife, Donna Packer, met at and earned associate degrees from Weber State, though they've had little connection with the school since then, Rasmussen said. Packer earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Utah State University and a doctorate from Brigham Young University. He became an LDS apostle in 1970.

The university does not plan to reconsider the name, said spokesman John Kowalewski.

"Weber State does not make a decision like this lightly, nor do we back away from the decision once its made," he said, comparing the reaction to protests in the 1990s over naming a scholarship in honor of Matthew Shepard, a gay man killed in a Wyoming hate crime. "Weber State tries to cultivate an environment that welcomes all viewpoints."

In considering names for the center, College of Education officials brainstormed several people with connections to the school. They considered the ire caused by Packer's comments, but ultimately decided that wouldn't be a stumbling block, Rasmussen said.

"There was a knowledge that there would be controversy [about the name] with some sorts of people," Rasmussen said, "but our thought was that if we did a good enough job explaining what the center did, people would not be overly concerned."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst