Some Mormons stop Sabbath prohibitions

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- As an active Mormon, Edward Sommers usually tries to spend Sundays in church. This week, however, the mining engineer will be driving a bus between Salt Lake City and the Olympic venues.

Sommers is just one of many Mormons who is setting aside his traditional observance of the Sabbath to take part in the 2002 Winter Games.

''They want us to spend time with church or family,'' said Sommers, who is volunteering for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. But he explains that he doesn't have family around, and, as for missing church: ''I think the thrill of the Olympics offsets that.''

Although Mormons don't observe the Sabbath as strictly as Orthodox Jews or Seventh-day Adventists (who take Saturday off), members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are discouraged from working, shopping, exchanging money or being idle on Sunday. Instead, they are supposed to attend church, pray, visit the sick, spend time with family and write letters to missionaries.

''The Sabbath is not a day for indolent lounging around the house or puttering around in the garden, but is a day for consistent attendance at meetings for the worship of the Lord'' church president Spencer W. Kimball told the faithful in 1978.

Indeed, believers usually spend at least three hours in church on Sunday, plus evenings in special prayer sessions and family meals and meetings.

And many are strict about their Sabbath observance -- especially when it comes to sports.

In 1999, church-owned Brigham Young University protested the NCAA's decision to schedule its women's championship soccer game on a Sunday, saying Mormon athletes wouldn't play.

Former BYU star Eli Herring turned down the Oakland Raiders because he would not play on Sunday, saying God is a bigger priority than football.

''Our activities on the Sabbath will be appropriate when we honestly consider them to be our personal sign of our commitment to the Lord,'' Herring said.

Even Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller refuses to attend NBA games on Sundays, choosing instead to watch them at home on TV.

Because about 70 percent of Utah's population is Mormon like Miller, many businesses shut down on Sundays -- including downtown Salt Lake City's ZCMI Mall, which is owned by the church and is remaining shut on Sundays during the 2002 Winter Games.

But even the city of Provo, which is 90 percent Mormon and usually a ghost town on Sundays, had activities planned for this week, including an ice carving display. And while many shops and restaurants are still closed, much of the crowd from the Mormon Tabernacle showed up at the downtown festival after morning prayers on the first Sunday of the games.

''It would be nice if everyone lived in a celestial kingdom, where no one bought things on Sunday and no one had to work,'' said Provo resident Sharon Johnson. ''But there are lots of different people in this world. We have to make sure everyone feels welcome.''

The Salt Lake Olympic Committee, which required its nearly 20,000 volunteers to commit to working all 17 days of the games, said it had no problems with no-shows on the first Sunday. And even some church employees and volunteers are working, although those who were able were urged to take an hour off to attend special services.

''All of us are balancing our responsibilities to serve and work,'' said church spokesman Dale Bills, who spent the first Sunday of the games working from home. ''We've worked it out for one another so everyone gets a Sunday break.''

For at least one Mormon Olympian it's not even an issue. Bobsledder Gea Johnson says she's very active in the church, but has never had a problem competing on the Sabbath. That's good news, because she had an official training heat scheduled for the second Sunday of the Olympics.

''I've always looked at it that this was something I was blessed to do,'' Johnson said. ''And I feel the Lord would want me to do it.''

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