Religious diversity in Utah Valley is not quite an oxymoron

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It’s no secret that Utah Valley residents are predominantly Latter-day Saints — roughly 80 percent, in fact — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a diversity of religions. Highland resident Linda Walton, chairman of the Utah Valley Ministerial Association, says the group represents 38 different faiths in Utah Valley, “and that’s just the ones we know of,” she said.

Walton is not LDS but declined to identify herself with a specific faith group because she feels keeping her religious beliefs private better enables her to do her job. As a chaplain at Utah Valley University, she’s been co-advising the Interfaith Student Association for 20 years.

“I like to remain neutral, because I’m there for atheists, evangelicals and everything in between,” she said.

The club, which has more than 300 student members, hosts guest lectures and panel discussions, partnering with academic departments, other universities and the nearby LDS Institute of Religion. They also work in connection with the Utah Valley Ministerial Association and the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, both county-wide groups of clergy, organizing educational events for students.

“It might be going to an art exhibit at BYU or to a Hanukkah service up in Salt Lake,” Walton said.

The mission of the Interfaith Student Association is three-fold: education about different faith options, promotion of religious liberty and charity work. They disperse educational resources, advocate on behalf of Utah Valley residents whose religious freedoms are being compromised and organize service projects with non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and the Food & Care Coalition.

“We found that pretty much every religious group believes in helping people who are in trouble,” Walton said.

In this landscape, the new LDS Church resources on religious freedom and tolerance are as relevant to Utah Valleyites as they are to anyone else in the world. The church-sponsored “Support Religious Freedom” Facebook group and LDS Newsroom training materials, all launched earlier this year, acknowledge that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that’s being eroded around the world and encourage Latter-day Saints and other “people of goodwill” to do their part in preserving it.

Walton is familiar with the resources and appreciates them as a sign of the church’s continued efforts with interfaith relations.

“I think it shows that they’re taking the initiative and extending their hand to others,” she said.

She said she encourages Utah Valleyites to explore them and also to support religious freedom in other ways.

“I think everybody should do some comparative religious studies,” Walton said. “If you have a Baptist, Jewish or Muslim neighbor, even just use Wikipedia to learn about their beliefs.”

Exposure helps combat prejudice, and “every religion has someone who is a bigot toward them,” Walton said.

She also recommends participating in interfaith activities, like the National Day of Prayer.

“Go see how other people pray, what scriptures they use, how they dress and so on,” she says. “It would really reduce bigotry if we were all more educated.”

Thankfully, Walton, who also owns Provo-based public relations and advertising firm The Walton Group, doesn’t encounter much outright bigotry in Utah Valley.

“I’ve lived here for a long time, and I’ve never had any problems with LDS people being discriminatory to me or my family,” she said. “Everyone I’ve encountered has always showed interest in what I believe and respect for religious liberty.”

But the dominance of the LDS faith here does often lead people to make false assumptions.

“Sometimes, it’s the elephant in the room,” Walton says. In the ways of tolerance and understanding, “we can always do more.”

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Samantha Strong Murphey is a lover of greenery, glitter and goat cheese, an advocate of media literacy, human rights and karaoke for all. She earned bachelor's degree in communications from Brigham Young University and is a former writer and editor at Utah Valley Magazine. Now, she works as a full-time freelance writer and blogger based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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