January 15, 2020

When Separation of Church and State Is Hard to Find

Monument Valley Utah

One of the many Ph.D. programs to which I applied was at a state (i.e., public) university in the state of Utah. I thought it sounded like a good program and while I hadn't spent any time in Utah, I felt like it was far enough away from where I grew up without being too far. I ended up interviewing there and being very impressed with how beautiful the area was. Unfortunately, the natural beauty of the surroundings was about the only positive thing about the experience.

The interview portion of the experience was brief, poorly organized, and did little to make the program seem appealing. I remember flying into Salt Lake City in the early evening and spending well over an hour on the shuttle to get to campus. Instead of being deposited at a cheap hotel, which would have been a relief after a long day of travel, the shuttle dropped me off in the snow in front of a professor's house. He was hosting a party with all the faculty, current graduate students, and other applicants. Not a good sign. I remember thinking, "I came all this way for this?"

The bulk of my time was spent with one of their current graduate students who showed me around the school and the town. She was nice enough, but she was also the one who hit me with the illegal interview question: "Are you Mormon?" Since I had already been worried about this sort of thing and whether it made any sense for me as a non-Mormon to even try to live in Utah for a few years, I answered honestly. Instead of just letting it go and perhaps realizing that her question would have created lots of trouble for her program had I decided to make a stink, she seemed to go out of her way to convince me that I would not want to come there as a non-Mormon.

She told me that there was nothing resembling separation of church and state in Utah and that most of the Mormons in the area would have little to do with me unless I decided to join them. I found it particularly interesting that she told me these things as a Mormon. It did not sound like she was proud or ashamed of what she was saying. She just had a very manner-of-fact tone about the whole thing as she told me that I would never be accepted here unless I became a Mormon. Of course, I could rely on my own observations too. For example, I couldn't help noticing all the wedding-related stuff spread throughout the student union. She explained that many Mormons came to college primarily to get married and start their families. She said that many of the women didn't even bother to finish. After a few hours, I started to feel like I was on another planet.

At the end of the experience, I found myself hoping that I would get an offer of admission somewhere else - anywhere else. I wondered what I would do if this ended up being the only offer I had. It would have been hard to turn down, but I realized I'd probably have to do so. I'd just completed four years at a Christian college, and I couldn't picture subjecting myself to this next. Fortunately, I did get another offer and did not get one from the school in Utah.

Should I have made a stink when I did not get an offer, claiming that the illegal interview question may have been part of the reason why? Maybe so, but I didn't see much of an upside at the time. I didn't want to go there anyway, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted them to be pressured to take me. I also didn't want to run the risk that they'd retaliate by communicating with other programs, etc. I guess the value of complaining would have been limited to the possibility that it served as a deterrent against them doing this to someone else in the future. Maybe it was selfish of me not to complain. In any case, I was ready to move on.

I have been through Utah a few times since then but still haven't spent much time there. I think it is too bad that a state with so much natural beauty and cool outdoor things to do was (and maybe still is) under the thumb of the Mormon church to such a degree. I'm sure there are parts of the state where this would be less of an issue today, and I would not have a hard time believing that even the bad parts might still be better than Mississippi in many respects.

If this experience in Utah combined with my subsequent years living in Mississippi has taught me anything, it would be that the U.S. Constitution does not apply uniformly across the states or even within particular states. In school, I remember being taught that it did. Life experience would suggest otherwise. The separation of church and state is not viewed the same way in Utah or Mississippi as it is in many other states, and this shows up in how cases make their way to court and how they are decided once they get there. As important as church-state separation is, I feel strongly that it needs to be both strengthened and enforced in every state.