Deal paves way for interview of Bishop Burton
In a rare move, attorneys for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will allow a top church leader to be questioned as part of an ongoing lawsuit.
Church attorney Alan Sullivan agreed Wednesday to allow the American Civil Liberties Union to depose LDS Church Presiding Bishop H. David Burton.
As part of that same agreement, Salt Lake City attorneys agreed to allow the ACLU to interview Mayor Rocky Anderson and industrialist billionaire Jon M. Huntsman Sr., Sullivan said.
“We filed a stipulation with the court today agreeing that Bishop Burton could be deposed, and we had no objection if Huntsman and Mayor Anderson were deposed,” he said.
The agreement was signed by the church, the city and the ACLU, Sullivan said.
The ACLU has sued the city, contending the Main Street Plaza deal that eliminated a public easement on the church-owned plaza violates the U.S. Constitution. The church was later added as a defendant in the case, which is the second lawsuit the ACLU has filed over the city’s sale of Main Street to the church.
Bishop Burton was questioned by the ACLU in its first Main Street Plaza case; however, it was unclear whether church attorneys agreed to that interview or whether it was court-ordered. Typically, church attorneys have fought against court-ordered interviews of top church leaders.
Sullivan declined to comment on why his clients agreed to be deposed or about the stipulation, which represents a strategic shift in the church and city’s defense of Anderson’s plaza deal signed between the city and church this summer.
Last week, Sullivan and Salt Lake City Chief Deputy Attorney Steven Allred had argued vigorously against the interviews. They told U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball the interviews shouldn’t be allowed since oftentimes mayors and their advisers are precluded from such court-ordered interviews.
Kimball was set to rule Wednesday on whether those interviews could move forward, but he didn’t issue a ruling, likely because the parties reached an agreement independently.
Allred didn’t return a call seeking comment about the agreement before Deseret Morning News deadlines.
Sullivan said the depositions will be completed before Jan. 9 and will last a half-day each. Kimball plans to rule on the church and city’s motions to dismiss the case on Jan. 26 and is also expected to consider ACLU motions to return free speech to the plaza at that time.
ACLU attorney Mark Lopez couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday’s agreement in the Main Street Plaza case. ACLU for Utah director Dani Eyer said she was aware of the agreement but couldn’t comment further.
In Kimball’s court Friday, Lopez said the interviews were needed to establish Anderson’s motives in crafting his community-center solution to the Main Street Plaza fray. That underlying reason, Lopez said, is that Anderson wanted to give up the city’s plaza easement to appease the LDS Church, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s provisions against government endorsement of one religion.
Huntsman, who is also a member of the church’s Quorums of Seventy, had acted as a go-between for Anderson and the LDS Church in working out the community center deal.
The initial Main Street Plaza suit came after the city sold a block of Main Street to the LDS Church in 1999 for $8.1 million. In that sale, the city reserved a public access easement across the plaza but gave the church the authority to prohibit on the plaza protests and proselytizing, certain dress and other things the LDS Church finds offensive.
The ACLU of Utah sued Salt Lake City over the restrictions, and last year the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver sided with the ACLU. The court said the city cannot have public access on the plaza while forbidding certain types of speech there.
The mayor then agreed to make the plaza entirely private and relinquished public guarantees of free expression and pedestrian passage on it. In return, the city received $5 million to be used for expanding the Sorenson Multi-Cultural Center and creating a new community center nearby.
Earlier this year, the ACLU, with a half-dozen plaintiffs, filed suit challenging the community center deal on the basis that it takes away constitutional guarantees of free expression and was too favorable a deal for the LDS Church.