The LDS Church’s historic temple-building spree is fracturing communities across the country

From Nevada to Wyoming to Texas, small towns have become neighborhood battlegrounds as feuds break out about the buildings’ height and light.

Erin DeLoe has been called a lot of things but never an agent of the devil.

That changed after she and her husband, Matthew, became vocal opponents to the construction of a Latter-day Saint temple in their rural enclave located in the northwest corner of Las Vegas.

The couple are adamant: They have nothing against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or its members.

“Growing up, I actually went to girls’ camp with my friends,” Erin said, referring to the faith’s summer sleepaway outings for teen girls. “I went to sacrament meetings, you know. My best friends growing up were all LDS.”

What the DeLoes do have a problem with is the church’s plans to build a 215-foot-high building with hundreds of parking spots in an area where residents sometimes ride horses in the street and the tallest things around are palm trees.

Due to their opposition, both say they’ve repeatedly been called bigots. Yard signs they plant opposing the temple disappear overnight and cars periodically sit at the end of their driveway, honking.

Others have taken an even bolder, brighter approach.

“We have people setting off fireworks,” Erin said, “behind the homes of people who are coming out against [the temple].”

Temple proponents in Las Vegas and elsewhere, however, argue that the buildings’ scope and designs are inextricably linked to their religious function and that opposition is rooted in NIMBY-ism (“not in my backyard”).

(Rachel Aston | Special to The Tribune) The proposed site of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple seen from Lone Mountain in northwest Las Vegas, Monday, May 6, 2024.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artist's rendering of the proposed 70,000-square-foot Lone Mountain Nevada Temple.

This bitter battle is playing out in small towns from as far north as Wyoming and as far south as Texas as the Salt Lake City-based church seeks to plant more and more hotel-size worship spaces into communities that pride themselves on horizons and acre-size lots.

Fought largely — although not exclusively — along a member/nonmember divide, these sometimes-rancorous debates have ruptured friendships and pitted neighbor against neighbor, and are likely to multiply amid a historic temple-building spree.

Currently, the church has a list of more than 150 temples — considered holier than a traditional meetinghouse — that are either under construction or planned, many in the United States.

“It’s created a lot of division,” Erin said, “within our community.”

‘Atmosphere of intimidation’

In a May 14 meeting that drew “unprecedented” crowds, the Las Vegas Planning Commission approved the site development review under the condition that the single-spired, three-story, 70,000-square-foot Lone Mountain Temple meets the neighborhood’s lighting standards.

“The last thing this city needs is another lawsuit,” Commissioner Donald Walsh said before casting his vote in the temple’s favor.

The City Council is expected to vote on the issue in July.

Many in the audience came dressed in navy blue, per a call issued on a Facebook page for Latter-day Saints living in Las Vegas. The widely circulated clip encouraged those planning to show up in support of the temple to be “peacemakers.”

But Brigitte Solvie, president of the nonprofit Northwest Rural Preservation Association, described the proposed building as a source of major contention for people in the area.

“I’ve talked to people whose relationships with LDS friends are breaking down,” said Solvie, adding that professional ties have strained as well under the weight of the heated debate surrounding the Lone Mountain Temple.

(Rachel Aston | Special to The Tribune) Brigitte Solvie, president of the Northwest Rural Preservation Association, poses for a portrait next to the proposed site of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in northwest Las Vegas, Monday, May 6, 2024.

She and the DeLoes described, as Erin put it, an “atmosphere of intimidation” created by temple backers.

“We have people in the neighborhood, they’re fearful,” Erin said. “They’re afraid to speak up. They won’t put signs on their lawns because they’re afraid of retaliation and having their homes damaged.”

The DeLoes and Solvie said they also have spoken to business owners wary of weighing in, afraid that doing so could hurt their bottom line.

There’s evidence they’re right to be cautious.

After Las Vegas photographer Victoria Bremner spoke out against the scale and size of the proposed temple, she received a one-star review on her business’s Google page, along with the comment: “Victoria discriminates against other people because of their religious beliefs.” Bremner said she had never received an inquiry from or worked with the person.

“We’re in the United States of America, and there are people [living] in fear of a church,” Erin said. “That’s just mind-blowing to me.”

Worst of all, she and her husband said, has been the impact on their three kids, who have been labeled “bigots” at school.

“They’re getting pummeled over this,” Erin said, “and losing friends.”

White hairs

Meanwhile, in Cody, Wyoming, a tiny tourist town about 50 miles from Yellowstone National Park that boasts Buffalo Bill’s final resting place, locals have been battling a proposed 10,000-square-foot temple on what is currently an open field.

“It’s definitely given me a few more gray hairs than I had a year ago,” Mayor Matt Hall said of the ongoing debate, explaining his wife tells him the new additions give him a distinguished look (he’s less convinced).

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An open field in Cody, Wyoming, where the church plans to build a new temple.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This artist's rendering shows the temple planned for Cody, Wyoming.

The city’s planning and zoning board approved a site plan for the temple and then walked it back after it was determined the vote didn’t count due to the absence of multiple board members. Attorneys for the church sued, and the city ultimately signed off on the site plan with some restrictions — including limits on outdoor lighting.

In response, the grassroots group Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods quickly filed a petition in district court as a “last line of defense against an LDS corporation that has threatened and intimidated our community” by going to court. Despite ongoing efforts to halt progress on the temple, equipment has been moved to the site.

Asked about the fight’s impact on the community of 10,000 residents, Hall said that “unfortunately it drew out some of the more negative aspects of people who just don’t like Mormons, particularly online.”

Happily, he said, most of the hateful rhetoric has “cooled off.” Still, it’s a reminder that in disputes over the nature and future of a community, neither side is rarely spared less-than-neighborly treatment.

Opposition within the ranks

Adding to the difficulty for some Latter-day Saints in these communities is their own mixed feelings about the projects and the process by which the church pushes them forward.

Karly Green lives a few miles from the site of the proposed single-spired, multistory, 43,000-square-foot McKinney Temple located outside Dallas in the town of Fairview, home to 11,000 people.

Residents there have been hard at work proving the town motto — “Keeping it country” — is more than an empty slogan, mobilizing online and off to resist the 173-foot-tall edifice in a district that restricts building heights to 35 feet. And Green said she doesn’t blame them.

“I am opposed to the proposed height of the temple,” she said, “due to the residential nature of the location — quite literally in residents’ backyards.”

(Shelby Tauber | Special to The Tribune) The lot where a proposed temple may be built in Fairview, Texas, is photographed on May 5, 2024. The spire of a nearby Latter-day Saint meetinghouse can be seen in the background.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artist's rendering of the proposed McKinney Texas Temple, currently slated outside Dallas in Fairview.

Besides the building itself, Green also isn’t thrilled with the way the church has managed the process.

In April, church officials emailed area members asking them to write the Fairview planning manager in support of the project, specifically the spire.

“The height of the steeple is part of our religious observance,” the email stated, explaining that it serves “the purpose of lifting our eyes and thoughts to heaven” and “expresses a message of faith and devotion to God.”

Green called this framing “misleading” (some Latter-day Saint temples, including ones in Hawaii and Arizona, have no steeples). She also said she is sympathetic to a feeling among residents of being “spoken at instead of being listened to.”

“The church had an opportunity to come to the community and ask for input,” she said, “or find an area that would already accept the plan they had in place without having to fight for exemptions. Instead, Salt Lake headquarters has come with a plan that requires exemptions and is preemptively asking members to be on the offensive.”

The approach may be backfiring. In a packed May 9 hearing, the town’s planning and zoning committee voted to recommend council members reject the proposal. According to CBS, the town’s mayor plans to do just that, even with the church’s attorney threatening to sue.

Lack of compromise

Joel Schuh is among those Fairview residents balking at the construction of the temple as currently proposed.

The high school teacher and his wife, Jennifer, worked hard to buy a plot away from city lights. If the temple goes forward, the couple will share a fence with the structure.

“We moved out to a rural community,” Schuh said, “100% to get away from something like this.”

(Shelby Tauber | Special to The Tribune) Joel and Jennifer Schuh stand in their backyard that shares a fence with a lot where a proposed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple may be built in Fairview, Texas, on May 5, 2024. The sky behind them would be filled with a single-spired, multistory, 43,000-square-foot building with a steeple reaching 173 feet high.

Again and again, Schuh took care to draw a distinction between local “rank-and-file” church members, who, he said, have been “nothing but courteous,” and the institutional church and its top brass, with whom he said he has grown increasingly disillusioned.

“The thing that makes me so irritated is all they have to do to end this is to come out and say, ‘We understand what the community wants, and we’re going to build it within standards,’” he said. “And all of this goes away. That’s what’s so disturbing about all of this is…the unwillingness to compromise with anything.”

Las Vegas’ Matthew DeLoe echoed this sentiment, saying the whole experience had put a “bad taste” in locals’ mouths “about this developer.”

“There’s this permanent stain,” he said, “being put on their previously squeaky clean reputation.”

(Shelby Tauber | Special to The Tribune) Joel Schuh looks through documents and letters he’s saved pertaining to a proposed temple that may be built next to his home in Fairview, Texas, on May 5, 2024.

A ‘typical’ developer

The Salt Lake Tribune submitted questions to a church spokesperson, among them the organization’s approach and guiding principles when opposition to temple projects arises and how the faith advises members when asking them to support these projects. Those answers were not provided.

Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, a community activist who has been fighting large developments in rural Las Vegas for 30 years, pushed back against the idea that the church is doing anything outside the norm when it comes to these sorts of planning and zoning fights, which she said often involve well-placed (yet legal) campaign donations and help from downtown law firms.

“They’re very typical,” she said, explaining the “playbook” followed by church officials is the same one she’s seen used by her various opponents through the years — with one exception.

(Rachel Aston | Special to The Tribune) The proposed site of a temple in the northwest valley in Las Vegas, Monday, May 6, 2024.

“They have people they can activate,” she said, calling this “a plus and a minus” for the faith.

On the one hand, Latter-day Saint leaders have a built-in grassroots network they can count on to email their officials and show up at public hearings.

Less helpful, DeRiso said, are “some of the things people are posting” online, some of which are “antagonistic.”

“People,” she said, “are passionate on both sides.”

What temples represent to believers

For believers, there may be few things worth going to the mat for more than a temple.

Only inside their dedicated halls can the faithful perform the most sacred rituals necessary to return to live with God, including uniting couples in marriage for eternity.

“The temple is sacred to us,” Todd Moody, a Latter-day Saint living about 8 miles from the proposed site of the Lone Mountain Temple, explained during public comment at the May 14 planning commission meeting. “It’s a place where we believe heaven and earth come together.”

Within this context, arguments about height and light can feel trivial at best and personal at worst, particularly when paired — in the minds of some — with criticisms often found online that what takes place in Latter-day Saint temples is “cultish” and “weird.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Celestial Room in the Manti Temple. For Latter-day Saints, temples serve as a meeting place between heaven and Earth and the only place where they can perform the rituals necessary to live with God again.

(J. Matt | Special to The Tribune) The Laie Hawaii Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, photographed Friday, April 1, 2022. The edifice is one of the faith's temples without a spire.

“Like the pillar of fire over the ancient tabernacle of Moses, light represents the presence of God,” Moody added. “The center spire of the Lone Mountain Temple will connect Earth and heaven, reminding us to elevate our thoughts and actions to a higher plane.”

At the same time, these projects have garnered support from members of other faiths, including a woman who identified as a Methodist during her comment at the Las Vegas meeting.

“Build the temple,” she implored the planning commission as applause broke out across the room.

And, in Utah’s Heber City, a vocal Catholic couple joined the side of supporters in a protracted debate over a planned two-spired, three-story, 88,000-square-foot temple in the Wasatch Back community.

After the dust settles — Boston and Heber

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Boston Massachusetts Temple in Belmont, Mass.

Temple zoning fights are hardly new for the church. As far back as the turn of the century, the faith was locked in a bitter dispute with the people in the Boston suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts, over the height of the spire on the temple there. The back-and-forth lasted for years before the state’s Supreme Court finally settled the matter in 2001 in the church’s favor.

“Emotions were very high,” said Grant Bennett, who was serving as the bishop, or lay leader of a congregation, in the area at the time, and as a kind of official liaison between the church and the community.

Nonetheless, the “aftereffects” have been “positive,” he said, among them increased “mutual respect” between the church and the community.

The community around Heber City, too, appears to be leaving the wreckage of the temple war behind it. At least, that’s what Wasatch County Council member Erik Rowland has observed. The council voted it through in November, at which point the comments, he said, “fell off a cliff.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large empty field is the site of the announced Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Heber on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. In the foreground is a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Rendering of the Heber Valley Utah Temple.

For “a couple of weeks,” he said, he felt like a soldier emerging after a great battle, wondering, “Has the last shot been fired? Can we stick our heads out?”

The answer, from as far as he can tell, is yes, thanks partly to new issues that have captured locals’ attention.

The exception: neighbors who are now suing the county, as reported by KPCW. Early this month, the assigned judge agreed to hear the case, as well as to allow the church to join the list of defendants.

‘I don’t even go to church anymore’

The community of Erda, located just outside of Tooele, has been less lucky, according to Latter-day Saint resident Kyle Mathews. The small-business owner was among those who successfully fought the development of a high-density housing project associated with a proposed temple in the town of 3,000.

The church moved the site for the three-story, 70,000-square-foot Deseret Peak Temple down the road from the original location (“We don’t go anywhere where we’re not welcome,” the faith’s governing First Presidency said at the time), to Tooele City, but resentment remains.

“It’s still talked about,” Mathews said, explaining his mom came home “just the other day” from a church activity, where the other women, she told him, “were still complaining about not having a temple.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Deseret Peak Utah Temple in Tooele on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Deseret Peak Utah Temple in Tooele on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Friends and neighbors he and his family have known their whole lives, he said, avoid them in the grocery store or go inside their homes when they see them coming.

“I don’t even go to church anymore,” he said. “I don’t associate with those people. I can’t.”

CorrectionMay 19, 3:50 p.m.: Erik Rowland is a Wasatch County Council member. Kyle Matthews opposed the development of a high-density housing project associated with a proposed temple in Erda. This story has been updated to correct those elements.

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