The Mormon church, as it wanted, has been named a co-defendant with the city in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Main Street plaza lawsuit challenging a church-city land swap.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball made the ruling Wednesday. New York City-based ACLU national staff attorney Mark Lopez had no objection, and said he would like to interview The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Presiding Bishop H. David Burton and Mayor Rocky Anderson for his case.
Lopez would use the interviews to shed light on motives for the deal that traded guaranteed public access – and First Amendment free-speech and assembly rights – for two acres of church-owned land in a neighborhood miles away, plus $5 million for a community center expansion. The church’s share of the $5 million was $338,000.
The August lawsuit, filed by both the national and Utah ACLU, asked the court to return control of the Main Street block to the city. The lawsuit named Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the city but not the church. The ACLU has since agreed to drop Anderson as a defendant.
On July 28, the city and the church closed the deal.
A local philanthropist and a group dedicated to easing religious conflict in Utah promised the rest of the $5 million that would go to building a community center in the neighborhood. That promise was an integral part of the complex exchange, which the ACLU wants Kimball to scrutinize, arguing that the city never should have given up the downtown easement.
Lopez suggested he also might seek interviews with City Council members, who voted unanimously with one abstention to approve the deal.
Church attorney Alan Sullivan said he would oppose the interviews, as would Chief Deputy City Attorney Steven Allred.
Kimball will hear arguments Dec. 5 on whether to allow the interviews. The judge also scheduled a hearing on Jan. 26 for the ACLU’s motion to restore free speech on the plaza until the lawsuit is resolved. At that hearing, lawyers also will argue the city and church motions to dismiss the lawsuit.
The church’s motion to dismiss says the city received ”ample” payment for the Main Street plaza pedestrian easement, and because the city’s reasons for selling the parcel were secular, there was no inherent endorsement of religion.
The concurrent legal actions center on the plaintiffs’ claims that the city capitulated to the church when it traded away guaranteed public access through a block of Main Street. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs are the Utah Gospel Mission, the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, a pro-nuclear disarmament group, the Utah chapter of the National Organization for Women and two individuals, all represented by the ACLU.
The plaza dispute began in April 1999, when the church paid the city $8.1 million for one block of Main Street adjacent to the church’s temple. The block, which is now a landscaped pedestrian plaza, formerly was a main traffic artery into and out of the city’s downtown.
The church agreed to the city’s demand for public access to the block, but demanded in turn that the church be allowed to restrict smoking, sunbathing, bicycling, ”obscene” or ”vulgar” speech, dress or conduct on the plaza.
The ACLU of Utah sued, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.
On October 9, 2002, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU and the plaintiffs it then represented. The city, not the church, was responsible for maintaining order on the 660-foot easement through the plaza, the court ruled.
The decision also said that one solution to the dilemma would be to sell the easement, but didn’t say how that might be done constitutionally.
City and church leaders hoped the land swap would put an end to the controversy over the church-city deal made under former mayor Deedee Corradini.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to take up the case as the two sides proceeded with the compromise plan Anderson introduced in December.