With January coming to a close, KUER religion reporter Lee Hale spoke with Host Caroline Ballard to recap some of the biggest stories of the month involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Mormon Faith.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Caroline Ballard: At the start of the new year, the Salt Lake Temple began the process of renovations to make the building more resistant to earthquakes. What’s happened so far?
Lee Hale: If you walk downtown Salt Lake right now you'll see these big cranes, you'll see that structures are being demolished at Temple Square. This is expected to be a four-year project. Basically, the grounds are being completely changed. The temple itself is going to have new earthquake proofing adjustments that should be able to withstand a magnitude 7.2 earthquake. That's the hope. At the end of this project Temple Square will look different. The high walls surrounding the grounds now will come down. They will be replaced by gates. But also the public will be able to tour the temple when it's all done. And this is obviously the most historic, most meaningful structure in the LDS church. It will be a chance for people who've never been inside that building to see what it’s like.
CB: Outside of Salt Lake City, there’s a lawsuit making its way through the courts in Oregon. A woman is suing the [LDS] Church after her husband confessed to their bishop that he had abused a child. The bishop reported him and he was convicted of the abuse and sentenced to prison. She is saying the confession was supposed to be confidential. What ramifications could it have for bishops and confessions?
LH: A lot of members of the church have said bishops should report any abuse to law enforcement. What we would call “mandatory reporters.” They’re currently exempt under Utah law. And this story is an example of a bishop doing what a lot people say is the right thing and now the church getting backlash from that. So I think this shows that this a complicated terrain that the church doesn't, I think, have a silver bullet to fix in a way that is going to make everyone happy. The church likes avoiding as many lawsuits as it can. I think you'll still hear people asking bishops to be these mandatory reporters, and these problems will likely come up again.
CB: Another big story that's been circulating is this church Sunday school manual. It went out with references to verses in the Book of Mormon describing dark skin as a curse. How has the church addressed this?
LH: This is a longstanding Mormon teaching that the church has tried to distance itself from in recent years — the teaching that dark skin in the Book of Mormon meant that God was cursing people and trying to separate them from light skinned people. And yet, in the newest version of the Sunday school manual for this year, dark skin is said to have been a curse. That teaching was reiterated. People were upset. Leaders have said this is not what the church believes anymore and yet it was still printed. So the church made a correction online to the manual, but hasn't issued a statement pushing church members to focus on the online version and ignore their printed materials. This shows that the church is still kind of bureaucratically, at the very least, out of touch with what members need and what is accepted.
CB: Looking forward a little bit, we have coming up the April General Conference. Is there anything about this conference that could be different for members as far as what they're going to see or hear?
LH: Definitely. It's all vague, but church President Russell Nelson has been teasing that this is going to be a big deal. It commemorates 200 years since Joseph Smith’s “first vision,” which started the whole Mormon experience — when Joseph Smith says he saw God, the father and Jesus Christ in a forest in Upstate New York. But Nelson has not really given many details beyond that. He really likes to rev up and tease things and keep the focus on the next big thing, the next big change. That's kind of his style. I think President Nelson is somebody who loves the limelight, loves the attention and likes to kind of create a little bit of a fervor. When it comes to content during General Conference, I would be surprised if it was that different from a typical year. But the location and some of the packaging, you could say, will look different.
Lee Hale hosts the podcast “Preach” for KUER and covers religion. Follow them on Twitter @leetroyhale
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow them on Twitter @cballardnews