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Controversy on Mormon Main Street - 2003-03-09


Salt Lake City, Utah, made a kind of world debut last year, when it hosted the 19th Winter Olympic Games. Since then, life in this western community has calmed down quite a bit but a controversy over a piece of property owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could change that. Salt Lake City is home to the Church, whose members are known as "Mormons." A court battle over access to a city street is pitting freedom of speech against freedom of religion.

Four years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints paid $8 million for one block of the main avenue running through downtown Salt Lake. The avenue is known as "Main Street", and the section the Church purchased from the city runs through a plaza connecting the Mormon Tabernacle to the Church's primary administrative headquarters.

Von Keetch is an attorney who represents the LDS Church. He says in 1999, the block of Main Street became private property, but as part of the deal, the Church agreed to a public access clause that says Mormon officials cannot prevent people from using the street. "The understanding between the city and the Church was that the public would always have the ability to walk across the plaza to get from one end to the other, or to come onto it and enjoy it," he says. "But the church would have the right as the owner of the property, and the entity that bought the property at full market value, to control the behavior that occurred there."

That isn't exactly true, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which insists the Church does not have the right to control behavior on the street. Shortly after the sale was finalized, Mormon officials issued a list of banned behavior. It includes demonstrations, vulgar speech, loud music, and the distribution of literature promoting other religions. Before, when the street belonged to the city, this behavior was allowed, thanks to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech in public places.

Stephen Clark, an attorney for the ACLU, which has fought the Church's restrictions in court, says "this case is really about whether the government can abdicate its responsibility to regulate peoples' enjoyment of public streets and sidewalks simply by privatizing those streets and sidewalks."

Late last year, a federal appeals court ruled the public access clause the Church agreed to when it bought the property prevents it from limiting public speech in any way. But Mormon officials have vowed to appeal that decision, saying it violates the Church's constitutional right to the free practice of religion. "The Supreme Court exists exactly for the reason to sort out important cases like this," said spokesperson Von Keetch. "And the church is perusing on a parallel track its appeal to the United States Supreme Court."

The Main Street issue has begun to divide residents in this city of 185,000, which was founded in the 1840s by Mormons migrating west to avoid religious persecution in the eastern United States. Today, 70 percent of the people residing here belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Heather May, a reporter for the Salt Lake City Tribune, said opinions about Main Street are falling largely along religious lines. "Anyone who opposes the Church having this plaza as private property and being able to determine what goes on there, people who oppose that I think maybe are viewed as anti-Mormon," she said.

In an effort to ease tensions, some members of the city council have put forth a plan that would eliminate the public access clause and give the Church the right to control behavior on the property. In exchange, the Church would give the city some land it owns on the other side of town, so that a new community center can be built there. But the ACLU's Stephen Clark said that would amount to religious favoritism on the part of the government, which is unconstitutional. "The government can't be at the behest, can't act at the behest, of a religious organization," he said. "That's the classic case of a violation of the principle of separation between Church and State."

Stephen Clark says the ACLU will challenge the deal between the city and the Church if it goes through. Meanwhile, church attorneys are preparing their request for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.