The recently completed Mormon Temple in Rexburg, Idaho, will bring hundreds of members of the Mormon faith to its luxurious interiors for worship, baptisms and to be sealed in marriage. Tours of the temple begin Dec. 29 and continue until Jan. 26. - AP

The temple effect

REXBURG, Idaho — After selling houses in this Mormon college town for two decades, Ted Whyte knows what some of his customers want: a home near the new Mormon temple. If only he could use that in his ads.

"The federal Fair Housing Act kicks in and calls it discriminatory," said Whyte, who like 92 percent of Rexburg's 31,000 residents is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Call it the Temple Effect.

Towering Mormon temples like the one scheduled for completion in Rexburg in February, and another slated to be finished in mid-2008 in Twin Falls 190 miles away, can have a mighty spiritual — and economic — effect.

Home prices in surrounding neighborhoods escalate. Motels offer rooms with temple views. Devout retirees relocate. Members of the community swell with civic pride and excitement. And sometimes, those of other faiths look on with resentment and suspicion.

Unlike Mormon chapels, where anybody can enter, temples are places where Mormons must be in good standing with the church leadership to get inside. Once there, they baptize the dead by proxy, marry for eternity and make sacred covenants with God — all beneath golden spires topped with Moroni, the angel Mormons say delivered the golden plates that form their gospel's foundation.

"It is always a constant reminder, when you see it sitting there and the beauty of it, of what I'm supposed to be doing," said Georgia Brown, a Mormon in Twin Falls who says even her town's non-Mormons take pride in the new temple there. "A friend asked me, 'Did you know our Moroni is bigger than the Boise Moroni?' Even for her, it's 'our' temple."

As the 2008 presidential run of Mormon Mitt Romney piques interest in the 177-year-old American religion, the 13-million-member church has at least 13 temples under construction or planned around the world. Just four of them are in the United States, two of them in Idaho.

The Rexburg temple, which will be the church's 125th worldwide, rises 168 feet, 8 inches, to the trumpet-blowing Moroni atop its spire.

Located near 20,000-student Brigham Young University-Idaho, a Mormon school, the temple is covered with 637 composite concrete panels mixed with sunlight-catching quartz. Its leaded-glass windows are ornamented with wheat designs, a nod to the region's agricultural heritage.

Inside, the fixtures are Art Deco, from the wall sconces to the banisters. At a blue-tiled baptismal font astride 12 sculptured oxen, Mormons induct dead relatives into the faith. Some rooms have colorful murals depicting elk and deer.

For visitors arriving on Idaho's Yellowstone Highway from the north, the Rexburg temple competes with the craggy Teton Mountains for dominance of the horizon. But the temple is easily the most prominent object on the man-made landscape in Rexburg, its lights visible from 30 miles away at night.

It serves at once as a beacon for the faithful and a soaring symbol of Mormon dominance in Rexburg, a town that has no bars at all but lots of bridal shops. College students in Rexburg live in sex-segregated housing on campus and off and have to be home by midnight every night of the week except Friday.

In perhaps a measure of how strong Mormons are in Idaho and in Rexburg, Romney has raised more money in Idaho than any of the other presidential candidates, collecting about $450,000 in all, $50,000 in Rexburg alone.

"A temple is a powerful icon for any community. That's why they build them," said the Rev. Caleb Vogel, priest of the local 100-member Roman Catholic congregation. "We've always been a minority. And this is affirming that."

Mormon Church spokesman Clark Hirschi in Salt Lake City said that to counter criticism that the Mormons close themselves off to outsiders, the church holds an open house before any new temple is dedicated and invites even nonmembers to tour the building.

The criticism is "one that we struggle with, and chew on, because I think there is some truth to it," he said. "But we're trying to get the word out that anybody is welcome."

At the Rexburg temple, church leaders expect around 150,000 people to don protective white plastic booties for the free tours from Dec. 29 to Jan. 26. Once the Rexburg temple is dedicated Feb. 3, however, only Mormons who have fulfilled rigorous requirements — including tithing, or donating 10 percent of their income — can secure a "temple recommend" that allows them past the lobby.

Mormon temples have not been greeted so warmly everywhere, especially in communities where Mormons are in the minority.

In Boston, the $30 million temple of white granite in the upscale Belmont neighborhood where Romney is a church leader was targeted by lawsuits. The building was dedicated in 2000, but the 81-foot steeple was added only later, after the church fended off a court challenge.

In communities like Rexburg, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls, where there has been a temple since 1945, opposition is rare.

At least one Idaho Falls hotel, the LeRitz, lures guests by advertising rooms overlooking the temple. And land near temples can be such a hot commodity that church leaders in Salt Lake City carefully safeguard their expansion plans to prevent unfair property speculation, Hirschi said.

Ken Edmunds, a Mormon developer of a 49-unit subdivision near Twin Falls' new temple, paid a premium for his land, figuring its location would make it easier to sell homes priced up to $900,000. He named the neighborhood after a Mormon magazine, the Ensign.

"The name is readily identifiable to those within the church, and those outside don't seem to care," Edmunds said. "In my mind, it was an economic cycle-proof development. And that was proven out."

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