N.C., Utah debate rights to new seat

Washington CorrespondentApril 9, 2002 

In a rite of passage for Mormons, Jeremy Young left Utah for the first time at age 19 and headed overseas to knock on doors and seek converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After a grueling two-year mission in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, he returned home to Orem just before Christmas. Young said he was culturally and spiritually enriched by the experience, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, he wasn't a Utahan while he was gone.

State leaders say Young's exclusion from the 2000 census -- and the omission of another 11,175 missionaries from Utah -- cost the state a new seat in Congress, one that will be given to North Carolina based on its population growth over the past decade.

Today, lawyers representing both states, as well as the Census Bureau, will argue over the congressional seat in front of a panel of three federal judges in Salt Lake City. Whatever that panel decides, the dispute -- which raises potent questions about religious freedom, states' rights and representative government -- probably will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 435 seats that make up the U.S. House of Representatives are redistributed once every decade to reflect population shifts. Leaders of Utah are particularly tender about the results this time.

In assessing states' populations, officials decided to count overseas federal workers, including military personnel, with ties to a home state. But no one else temporarily living overseas, including corporate workers or religious missionaries, was tallied.

"In effect, what the Census Bureau has said is that the secular purpose of serving government is more important than the religious duty of serving God," said Tom Lee, a Brigham Young University law professor who has been retained by the state to help with its lawsuit.

The Census Bureau maintains that federal workers are the only group abroad that can be accurately counted. But during the first part of the century, the bureau counted missionaries, and just two decades ago, it excluded federal workers.

Whatever the rationale this time, the math clearly has worked in North Carolina's favor.

Figures released in late December showed that if Utah had another 857 people as of April 2000, it would have been awarded the last congressional seat available, rather than North Carolina.

Included in North Carolina's population count were about 18,000 overseas federal workers, compared with about 4,000 for Utah. Meanwhile, Utah has nearly 12,000 Mormon missionaries, while North Carolina can claim only about 100, according to the Church of the Latter-day Saints. No one knows for sure how many missionaries of other denominations are out there.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said Utah needs to live with the results. His state has started preliminary work on redrawing its congressional boundaries, which will include a 13th House district.

Utah is fighting to boost its number of House districts from three to four.

"There's nothing logically wrong with trying to count everyone overseas, including missionaries," said Cooper, a Democrat. "But it's much too late in the process for Utah to be trying to change the rules."

Even Utah officials acknowledge that trying to count every U.S. citizen temporarily overseas could produce chaos at this point. So they offer a simpler solution: Don't count anyone overseas.

"Either way, we win," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican who spent two years in Peru as a Mormon missionary in the mid-1970s.

It's hard to overstate the Mormon presence in Utah.

Downtown streets in Salt Lake City, the capital, are numbered by how far they are from the Temple, the main place of worship for Mormons.

The rotunda of the state Capitol features a giant statue, several times larger than life, of Brigham Young, the former church president and Utah governor. A colorful mural above depicts Young leading the Mormons into Utah.

Missions are part of life here.

The church sends thousands of members, or Latter-day Saints, around the globe each year. Most are single men in their early 20s, but some are women and married couples. Missions typically last between 18 months and two years, and almost everyone returns to Utah afterward, church officials say.

One example is Jason Murphy, a professional snowboarder, who at first struggled with the notion of a mission when a church leader suggested it to him.

"I came to the conclusion that I had been given so much that I needed to give something back to the Lord," said Murphy, now 25.

He returned from a two-year journey through Argentina in February 2000 but isn't sure whether he was included in the April census count. He's certain, though, that he and other missionaries should have been.

"We're still citizens," Murphy said. "We should still count for what's going on at home."

Shurtleff said the Census Bureau's numbers also stung because Utah, like many Western states, has a "long history of battles with the federal government."

The federal government owns about 70 percent of the state's land, which creates tension on a variety of property-rights issues, he said.

Shurtleff said his main concern is making sure Utah gets the number of representatives that it deserves.

"This is really not about the church," he said. He said an increase in House members would make "a huge difference" in how well Utah is represented on "issues of Western life" and other matters.

There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that larger congressional delegations carry more clout. In a recent assessment of delegations' influence by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, larger states were generally ranked higher. But there were some exceptions. Alaska, the 48th most-populous state, was ranked 12th, largely because of the influence of Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican who is chairman of his chamber's appropriations committee.

Utah tied for 35th in the rankings, while North Carolina was 15th.

"Other things being equal, more members are better than fewer members," said U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat. "It's a difference at the margins, perhaps, but it's important. And it's something to which we're entitled."

Washington correspondent John Wagner can be reached at (202) 662-4380 or jwagner@mcclatchydc.com

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