A Utah lawmaker wants government-mandated background checks for church leaders and volunteers who work with young people — an effort, he said, that could prevent predators from grooming children for sexual abuse.
Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, doesn’t seem confident that his proposed legislation will become law, but he said in an interview last week that he hopes it will start an important conversation about sexual abuse and how to protect children.
He spent his career as an educator and now works as a real estate agent, and he has been required to pass background checks for both professions.
Why, he asks, don’t clergy face the same requirement? Or the church volunteers who take young people on camping trips, play night games with them or offer them support?
The Republican legislator opened a bill file last week to address the issue in the 2023 legislative session.
Grover acknowledged that there will likely be questions about whether his proposal is an infringement on religious freedom. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Grover said of its constitutionality. “I think the question needs to be asked and heard in [a legislative] committee. We do pass bills from time to time that are not constitutional.”
Referring to public lands bills that have been criticized as unconstitutional, he added: “I feel land issues are less important than our youth, much less the children who are here now being sexually abused and not being heard.”
Grover, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he also is not concerned about what Utah’s predominant faith thinks about the proposal.
“I don’t want their opinion,” he said. “If we get it to committee, they can come in and opine.”
Latter-day Saint leaders did not take a position of Grover’s proposed legislation when contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune.
“We don’t have anything to offer you as a response on this today,” church spokesperson Sam Penrod wrote in an email to a reporter on Friday.
The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said last week that all priests are required to get a background check. And spokesperson Jean Hill noted that state or federal officials also require checks for other reasons, such as a priest ministering in a state prison or a clergy member born in another country who is trying to immigrate to the United States.
“For us, an additional state law would be unnecessary,” she said in an email. “Without bill language, it is impossible to say if the bill would include any provisions that would raise free exercise [of religion] claims as well.”
There are a handful of other states that have mandated background checks for clergy members, including California, which passed a law that took effect in January that required such measures.
Grover’s proposal likely won’t be the only debate Utah legislators have about clergy and sexual assault issues.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, has focused much of her work as a legislator on creating better policies to protect victims of sexual assault. She plans to reintroduce a bill this year that would remove a carve-out in Utah’s child protection laws that allows clergy members to not to report suspected child abuse.
Romero said that when she was a volunteer teacher in the Catholic Church, she was required to pass a background check. She supports Grover’s proposal, but pointed out it does have limitations.
“There are many people who are offenders who have never been caught or reported,” she said.
She believes Grover’s proposal is good policy, she said, but it should not stop there — preventive education, she said, is just as important.
She went through training as a Catholic Church volunteer, Romero said. And the Latter-day Saints have required since 2019 that leaders also go through mandatory “protection training” when working with children and youths.
Another Utah lawmaker, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, announced earlier this month that he also plans to introduce legislation requiring bishops and other clergy to report abuse. His announcement came after an Associated Press investigation described the Latter-day Saint faith’s handling of child sex abuse cases and said church leaders used a “help line” to keep abuse accusations against members from being reported to law enforcement. The church strongly pushed back against the allegations.
Lyman has said he will defer to Romero if she pursues her bill. She acknowledged in a recent interview that measures like hers and what Grover has proposed raises questions about religious freedom.
“As a policymaker, I want to make sure our most vulnerable members in our community are protected,” she said. “And if somebody is sexually abusing a child, I think they need to be held accountable. I’m not trying to interfere with their connection with God or a whatever higher power they believe in.”