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Mercer County church league plays hardball with Mormons

| Thursday, May 24, 2012, 8:01 p.m.

The 23 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Slippery Rock who signed up to play in a Mercer County church softball league weren't trying to make a religious statement, their would-be coach says.

"It's softball, for heaven's sake. We thought it would be a good opportunity to get involved in the community," said Brett Udy, 50, of Grove City.

The 10-team Grove City Area Church Softball League disagrees and won't let them join.

"It's more than softball -- it's church softball. If you're saying something's a church, that's more important than what's on the field," said Bryson Hoobler, 31, of Grove City, president of the league, who considers it a Christian league.

"Most of our churches don't view them as Christians. We don't regard the LDS church as a Christian church," Hoobler said. "When you include someone in a group -- that's kind of like saying they're fundamentally the same as most people in the group. We don't feel that's accurate with LDS."

The league's vote last month to keep the Mormon church out -- after at least two teams threatened to quit -- highlights a continuing issue involving how some Christians view Mormons, observers said. The issue cropped up on the national political stage as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has answered questions and concerns over his Mormon faith.

"There has been a discussion of the perception of what Mormonism really is," said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "Politically, there will be issues for Mitt Romney in some areas of the country where evangelicals have a strong foothold.

"Overall, it's not going to be the decisive issue in the election. Most clear-thinking people are not going to vote for or against Romney because he's a Mormon."

Mormons consider themselves Christians. The church is based on revelations by Joseph Smith in the 1820s.

Udy detects religious intolerance in the league's decision to keep them out of the softball league.

"Each church in the league has theological differences -- which we do, too. But we do consider ourselves Christians," he said.

The softball league, which starts play next week, includes Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Church of God and Christian Missionary Alliance churches.

Hoobler said individual members of the Mormon church have played on other teams in the league in the past and his league has no problem with that.

Hoobler said representatives of the Mormon team showed up at the first organizational meeting and said they planned to join.

"That kind of took us by surprise but we went on as if they'd be joining. I learned later that people had concerns," Hoobler said.

George Worgul, chairman of the theology department at Duquesne University, said that some Christians could interpret Mormonism as not being Christian based on what they believe about Jesus.

"Mormons are saying in their own way, we do believe these things. It's a battle of interpretation," Worgul said.

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