The dispute over the Main Street Plaza is widening the religious chasm

The Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 15, 2002
http://www.sltrib.com/
BY KRISTEN MOULTON

Brent Ek is an atheist who says the LDS Church is getting what it deserves with the Main Street Plaza conflagration.

Ek hopes the City Council and U.S. Supreme Court will not give the church what it wants: the right to control speech and behavior on what used to be a block of Salt Lake City’s Main Street.

“I hope they waste millions of dollars taking it to the Supreme Court and for once be shown they don’t own this state anymore,” said Ek, a Salt Lake City resident who says he has suffered discrimination at the hands of Mormons.

“When they petitioned to join the Union, they agreed to obey the laws of the land, including free speech and free assembly,” Ek said. “They seem to forget they are only one voice among many now. Peace and tranquility are in the eye of the beholder. It is not for the chosen 12 to dictate to me.”

Latter-day Saint Robert Hanks is plenty angry, too.

Frustrated about what he sees as an attack on his church simply because it wants a beautiful public place where civilized behavior is the rule, Hanks launched an e-mail chain letter to Mormons and their friends.

He called for 20,000 church supporters to show up at a City Council meeting and sign petitions, suggested businesses put pressure on Mayor Rocky Anderson to accede to the church’s desires, and urged a campaign for a “resounding” defeat of Anderson’s re-election bid if he refuses to “do the right thing.”

“I, for one, am tired of having the loud minority trample on the majority,” Hanks wrote in his e-mail.

If there were any question of a religious divide in Utah, it has been answered with the Main Street Plaza.

The uproar has spread to restaurants, workplaces, homes, churches, newspapers and city halls.

Much of the debate is civil, but much is incendiary.

“People have taken sides,” said Mike Martinez, a Murray attorney. “It has sort of rallied all the community to have an opinion. The issue is much deeper and divisive than people realize.”

More than half (58 percent) of Wasatch Front residents say the plaza issue has affected relations between Mormons and non-Mormons, according to a poll conducted last week for The Salt Lake Tribune. That number rises to 62 percent among Salt Lake City residents. And nearly 70 percent of Salt Lake City Mormons say the dispute has deepened the divide, while 56 percent of non-Mormons share that view.

Sandy resident Randall Johnson says it is like a “window into the great divide. It shows how big the chasm is, how blind one side is to the issues of the other.”

The recent debate began in October after a federal appeals court threw out speech and behavior restrictions on the plaza, which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built after buying a chunk of Main Street for $8.1 million. The judges said the rules were unconstitutional because the city retained a public easement through the property.

That means the church cannot oust hecklers, protesters and pamphleteers, who have stepped up their plaza activity in recent weeks.

The LDS Church vows to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but for now is asking the City Council to do what Anderson won’t: give or sell the easement to the church. The mayor says the best compromise is his “time, place, manner” plan that limits the easement to the east sidewalk with a protest zone at each end.

City Council members, who would have to approve Anderson’s proposal, are weighing whether to give up the easement. They will hold a public hearing on the issue Tuesday at 7 p.m. KUED Channel 7 will telecast it live.

Strong Opinions: While Tuesday’s meeting will give Salt Lake City residents the chance to address the council directly on the issue, Utahns have been voicing their opinions for weeks.

Brian Birch, acting director of religious studies at Orem’s Utah Valley State College, says the plaza debate “exposes the division in our community resulting from several decades of mutual distrust.”

While many outside of Mormonism feel marginalized, LDS members feel misunderstood and unnecessarily victimized, he said.

The conflict is nearly as old as settlement in the Salt Lake Valley, but perhaps made worse by the capital city’s growing diversity of opinion, cultures and religions.

Latter-day Saints are not only a tightly knit community but also form a distinctive culture that can be difficult to penetrate. Add to that the church’s claim that it is the one, true religion and its zeal in sharing that truth, and relationships with others inevitably will be affected, Birch said.

In the past year, there has been open, public acknowledgement of the divide.

Prominent businessman Jon Huntsman, a Latter-day Saint, recruited Anderson, a non-practicing Mormon, to form the Alliance for Unity, a group of 18 religious, business and community leaders worried about the divisions and intent on encouraging respect.

LDS leaders have urged members to nurture sincere friendships with neighbors, free from ulterior motives bent on conversion. The common label “non-Mormon,” apostle M. Russell Ballard preached, is exclusionary and should be dropped.

During last winter’s Olympics, the church kept missionary efforts in check, helping make them Utah’s Games, not the Mormon Olympics.

The Tribune, seen by some as anti-Mormon for its coverage of church issues through the years, published “The Unspoken Divide” a year ago to explore how Utahns view the schism. Thousands of reprints were requested by readers, who took them to churches, schools and even the homes of their relatives and neighbors.

Sandy resident Johnson, for instance, put 180 copies on the doorsteps of his mostly LDS neighbors in Sandy with a note inviting dialogue. He received one angry e-mail in response.

Orem resident Helen Weeks used the divide as the topic of a two-day forum for seniors she organized in Springville in April and passed out 200 copies of “The Unspoken Divide.”

“People had their eyes opened, most of them for the very first time,” Weeks said.

A Spoken Divide? According to the Tribune’s poll — conducted by Valley Research — 45 percent of those who believe there is a religious divide say it has deepened in the past year. Only 10 percent a year ago thought the divide was getting worse.

That disparity echoes fears of those who saw hope in the public’s willingness to talk about the problem. They fear the plaza feud will fester and erode relationships.

Aaron Chambers, a University of Utah student and committed Mormon, is one of those.

He saw the gap widen at Thanksgiving, when his sister-in-law and her husband began talking about the unconstitutionality of the church’s approach to the plaza. Conversation froze, he said. “Around them, we don’t talk a lot about the church.”

Craig Goodrich of Salt Lake City said the issue “not only divides the community but is also causing problems in my own home.”

“My wife thinks this is another instance of the failure to separate church and state in Utah. She threatens to move from the state if the city government complies with the LDS Church’s wishes,” Goodrich said.

Goodrich, who opposed selling Main Street and lauds the appellate court’s decision, nonetheless said he understands the church’s position and believes the city may have to sell the easement to the church.

“Everyone needs to be willing to compromise, my wife and the LDS Church included. We all need to be able to see the other point of view,” Goodrich said.

The Blame Game: Salt Lake City’s mayor has talked of nasty verbal attacks he has suffered, and Councilman Dale Lambert, a Mormon, said Tuesday that he has been called “a cleric for the American Taliban.”

Many blame Anderson for the animosity, particularly after a flare-up last month during a council meeting in which he questioned the all-Mormon City Council’s objectivity.

The mayor’s insistence that he is simply trying to get the LDS Church to honor its contract likewise riled many residents. Even Martinez, who worked on Anderson’s campaign, says the mayor fanned the flames.

“He started right off the bat saying, ‘I’m the moral guy. I’m trying to stick to the contract,’ ” Martinez said. “He triggered ethical insinuations that [church leaders] aren’t honest. You can’t beat a church on morals or ethics. Rocky becomes the Antichrist.”

Trading Accusations: Salt Lake City resident Paul Cracroft, a Mormon, says many saw Anderson as disparaging church leaders. That rankles the faithful who “generally don’t take kindly” to those who have left the fold.

“None of this needed to happen,” Cracroft said. “It could have been done with the stroke of a pen and a kind word, but Rocky didn’t want to.”

Anderson agrees that the firestorm could have been avoided.

“It would have been so amazing if the church said, ‘We’ll comply [with the ruling] and appeal. We place great value on the First Amendment and intend to abide by the agreement,’ ” Anderson said in a recent interview.

“Instead, they seem to want to scapegoat me and portray me as being in opposition to their religion. That is so far off the mark. I have tremendous respect for The Church of Jesus Christ and what they do in this community.”

For his part, Anderson points to the church’s enormous public relations campaign as divisive. Lambert agrees that the campaign could be adding to the polarization.

“Maybe we’ve all contributed to this divisiveness,” the councilman said.

Indeed, a recognition that the debate has turned nasty was a theme of last week’s council meeting.

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Church, one of the plaintiffs that challenged the church’s plaza restrictions, wondered aloud whether there was any hope for Jerusalem if Salt Lake City could not overcome its divide.

“It is time for both sides to lay down their verbal armaments,” he said.

The Alliance for Unity this week also called for a timeout. Huntsman said the plaza debate could, in a sense, “be the test of our alliance.”

Divisions among people “can ruin a community if they are not brought together,” he said. “The whole essence for the alliance is to carry out a sense of unity and personal conduct of listening to the other side.”

New Dialogue: Aside from the plaza furor, good has come from the increased public dialogue about the divide.

In Orem, the religious studies program at Utah Valley State College is planning a series of round-table discussions on religious and ideological diversity in Utah. Each will be led by a guest scholar.

“Our aim is to create a forum for open, fair and honest dialogue as opposed to the backroom sniping that is all too common in our community,” Birch said.

In Salt Lake City, Hank Hoole, who recently returned with his wife from an LDS mission in China, is making plans for a Dec. 21 neighborhood singalong in Laird Park. One of the neighbors had enjoyed such a holiday tradition while living in Connecticut, and Hoole hopes to duplicate the good will.

He put together a diverse neighborhood committee at the suggestion of his Alliance for Unity-inspired bishop, but intends to pass the baton to someone who is not LDS for next year’s singalong.

“It’s for everyone, no matter their religious status or nonstatus,” said Hoole, a native of Holland. “Somebody had to start it.”

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