Utah stands apart as one of the unique regions in the United States because of its history and culture. With the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints playing a dominant role—more than 60% of Utahns are church members—issues of religious liberty can often arise when legislators look to establish safeguards and guidelines. As some lawmakers raise concerns about the threat of child sexual abuse and other harm in religious organizations, issues of freedom are front and center again.
In late August 2022, a Republican lawmaker began preparations to introduce a bill in the 2023 legislative session requiring background checks for all clergy members and volunteers who will work with young individuals. Pointing out that he had to pass a background check to be a teacher and again to be a real estate agent, the lawmaker questioned why such requirements weren't also placed on the clergy. In religious environments where the power of authority can be extreme, there are, unfortunately, many ways to wield that power as a vehicle for committing abuse.
Some legal experts question whether such laws are constitutional at all, pointing to the First Amendment's prohibition against laws regarding religious establishments. However, other states, including California, have recently passed similar bills requiring clergy background checks. Whether these laws will face a court challenge remains to be seen, but the Utah representative believes they should forge ahead regardless.
Another Utah lawmaker, a Democrat, also plans to re-introduce legislation to modernize Utah's child protection laws. Currently, clergy members are not mandatory reporters—in other words, even if they suspect a child has suffered abuse, they are not obligated to inform authorities. Repealing this carve-out is the goal of the legislation, although its fate is also uncertain in the upcoming legislative session.
The Catholic Church in Utah informed reporters that it already requires its own background checks for clergy and volunteers. The LDS Church does not have such institutional policies, only complying with state laws when necessary. The contrast between the two points offers an interesting perspective for anyone overseeing a religious organization, from youth groups to sports affiliated with private religious schools.
Adding background checks to the volunteer process can be advantageous for several reasons, even without legislation requiring it. First and foremost, many people across the nation broadly recognize that background checks help foster safer spaces—and leaving that information on the table is potentially negligent.
Opting to employ a background screening process does not mean automatically rejecting everyone but rather requires a more thorough accounting of an individual's suitability. Religious organizations can still be destinations for second chances—but that second chance shouldn't come at the expense of safety for children or transparency for parents. Employing a thorough screening process can be a selling point in its own right. Why not show parents and families that the organization has taken every possible step to ensure those supervising their children are safe and responsible?
Background checks can't prevent every crime, nor can they predict whether someone will commit one. However, laws such as those proposed in Utah have an essential goal. With growing concern for children in many spaces, leveling the playing field with background checks is a smart move.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments