Paradise Valley Schools Propose Bringing Missionaries into Classrooms

A contract drafted by the LDS church's headquarters in Utah would have the school district pay for Mormon missionaries to volunteer in schools.

Paradise Valley Schools Propose Bringing Missionaries into Classrooms
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Last week, the Paradise Valley Unified School District was expected to vote on a measure that would bring Latter-Day Saints missionaries into classrooms. But questioning from LOOKOUT as well as a legal letter from a local nonprofit pushed the district to remove the agreement, at least temporarily.

Mormon missionaries are people—mostly young churchgoers fresh out of school—who are part of the LDS church and take two years to complete a certain number of volunteer hours. Their goal is to proselytize and spread the Mormon gospel worldwide. Single men are expected to volunteer for two years, while single women volunteer for 18 months, according to the LDS church website.

It’s unclear who proposed the agreement between the church and the school district. And questions to the district asking for details on who was advised to make the memorandum of understanding weren’t answered.

Teachers hadn’t known about the agreement before the board meeting’s minutes were introduced days before, and board members were shocked to learn about the proposal since it was wedged into a package of agenda items that were considered routine business and couldn’t be debated.

But LOOKOUT received a copy of the memorandum of understanding, which showed that the LDS church’s headquarters in Utah had drafted the agreement with the Assistant Superintendent of the district, Steve Jeras, listed as the main contact.

The agreement would give Mormon missionaries access to public school classrooms as teacher’s assistants, which would go toward their volunteer hours. The agreement said that the school would “co-develop” a program with the church, as well as pay for all background checks and fingerprint clearance for the missionaries.

PVUSD already has a similar volunteer program where people have to go through a background check. After being cleared, they get assigned duties by a teacher who needs assistance.

But Kerry Baker, who sits on the Paradise Valley Governing School Board, said she wasn’t sure why the district—not the LDS church—would pay for background checks or fingerprint clearance. She also didn’t understand why church members couldn’t go through the regular process, instead of an MOU that was created for LDS members, specifically.

“I don’t want any church to go into our classrooms,” she told LOOKOUT in an interview last week. “Especially a church that is not affirming to LGBTQ+ people.”

Mormons have a long history of anti-LGBTQ+ bias. Only recently, in 2019, did the church remove labeling same-sex churchgoers as “apostates.”  And the church still calls same-sex attraction a sin (despite publicly supporting a same-sex marriage law in 2022). The church also doesn’t believe people should be transgender, and claims gender is sex defined at birth.

The MOU said that the district would be respectful of the missionaries’ values, but that church members must abide by federal and state law regarding nondiscrimination. (Note: there is no statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in Arizona, and federal law has been weakened since the U.S. Supreme Court has given wide latitude for religious organizations to discriminate.)

A representative of the church wouldn’t respond to LOOKOUT’s request on details about the MOU with Paradise Valley, or how missionaries inside schools could make queer students unwelcome.

LOOKOUT contacted the school board asking questions about the partnership. Days later, the district also received a legal letter from Secular AZ, a nonprofit government watchdog group.

“This MOU has a multitude of problems,” the letter from Secular AZ read. “LDS missionaries must wear badges that identify them as LDS. Thus they can be seen as proselytizing. The MOU is extremely vague about what they would be doing.”

Afterwards, the board removed the MOU from the meeting agenda.

In a statement to LOOKOUT, PVUSD Communications Director Matthew Droge never mentioned that the district had received a legal letter, and instead said that all MOU’s are given legal review before being presented to the board: “Because we wanted a second legal review of this document, it was removed from last week's agenda,” he said.

It’s unclear if the MOU will be brought back up in the next school board meeting.

This is a developing story and will be updated as we learn more.

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