Documents raise questions about religious influence

Documents raise questions about religious influence

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and members of his staff discussed how to incorporate Mormon principles into state policy, according to public documents that have been pulled from the state archives at Leavitt's request.

Leavitt, now the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, asked the state archivist to review the material after it was obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune for a story published Sunday.

Leavitt said the discussions should remain private because they contained personal or even "sacred" thoughts from members of his staff.

The documents were recorded in 1996 during meetings Leavitt had with his staff, including chief of staff Charlie Johnson, former U.S. Attorney David Jordan and policy adviser LaVarr Webb.

The group gathered before work and did not meet at the state Capitol, but did hold sessions at the Governor's Mansion. Meetings opened with a prayer before the group reviewed stories from the Book of Mormon, exploring the scripture lessons and how they apply to modern government.

The discussions included how to communicate the lessons in a "bilingual" manner to a non-Mormon audience. The principles the group settled on included accountability, equality, stewardship and marriage, all of which are part of Mormon doctrine but also not necessarily only faithful ideals.

"We certainly weren't attempting to establish public policy or state policy based on those meetings or discussions there, but religion certainly did form the context for discussions of basic underlying philosophies," said Webb, now a political consultant.

Leavitt said during the meetings that they were not official state business and asked staffers to keep the discussions confidential.

Leavitt asked the state archivist to review the material and determine whether it should remain public. The records have been pulled, pending a 30-day review.

In a written response to questions from The Tribune, Leavitt said that he has not held comparable gatherings as a member of President Bush's cabinet, nor did he as administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency.

"My best thinking often occurs in conversation where people feel comfortable in trying out new thoughts and challenging each other's ideas," Leavitt wrote. "We occasionally recorded them to free ourselves from note taking. These were private conversations among friends."

Leavitt's office referred questions to Natalie Gochnour, a friend and former staffer that Leavitt asked to handle calls regarding the archive material.

Gochnour noted the meetings were always during non-work hours and took place at private homes, including the governor's residence.

"This was not any different than a lot of other study groups than people have in their private lives," Gochnour told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Leavitt said the meetings do not reflect an undue influence from his faith and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never tried to affect his decisions in state or federal government.

"Like everyone else, my faith is part of a complicated chemistry of experiences that shape the way I see the world," Leavitt said.

After being elected, Leavitt said he had a meeting with church leader Gordon B. Hinckley, who said: "Governor, I have a suggestion on how we conduct business. You run the state, and we'll run the church."

The 13-million member The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered in Salt Lake City, where Mormon pioneers settled in the 1840s. The state is still largely Mormon, although the majority has slipped to about 61 percent.


Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune,

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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