LDS, Media to Meet

The Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 16, 2002

In a rare move, two general authorities of the LDS Church will meet with news media reporters today to talk about the Main Street Plaza.

A church spokesman would not say who will represent the church or what they will say. But some believe the church plans an all-out campaign to pressure Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson — and maybe the City Council — to eliminate the city’s easement through the plaza. There is talk of mailers and brochures for the public.

Church officials have asked Anderson repeatedly to give up the easement, which guarantees the public 24-hour access to the plaza. Eliminating the easement would allow the church to control speech and behavior there.

Whatever it does this weekend, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is setting up a battle with Anderson, who says he won’t give away the city’s easement and will oppose any council attempt to get rid of the right of way.

“I make a good scapegoat,” Anderson said Friday. “Although it’s very difficult to be subjected to this kind of pressure and at times, indeed, pretty lonely, I feel we’re doing absolutely the right thing.”

Former Mayor Ted Wilson, a Mormon, says his church should back off. “It just inflames the biggest division in our community: That is Mormons [versus] others.”

Wilson, who believes the city never should have sold the block of Main Street to the church, noted there have been few protests on the plaza since the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the First Amendment must be protected there because of the city-retained easement.

Besides, church members have learned to deal with naysayers who stand on sidewalks around Temple Square during general conferences, he said. “I would suggest the church adopt the same attitude toward the eastern side of the block,” Wilson said.

While church officials remain vague about today’s interviews, the church’s intent has been clear since the 10th Circuit ruling. The church wants the easement so it can bar demonstrations, proselytizing and other unwanted behavior from what it considers to be sacred ground because it abuts the Salt Lake Temple. Church officials have said they bargained for that right, paying $8.1 million for the street.

“As I have conveyed to you on several occasions, your decision [to keep the easement] gives the city far more than it bargained for and the church far less,” LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton wrote Anderson earlier this month.

But Anderson points out that church leaders knew they could lose the right to control behavior and speech on the plaza. The church and city agreed to a severability clause in a special warranty deed that says if a court finds one part of the deed unconstitutional, the rest of it remains.

Anderson says the clause shows the church anticipated that church-sought restrictions on behavior could be held invalid and agreed the easement should remain. Church attorneys disagree with that interpretation.

In any case, Wilson, who is working on Anderson’s re-election campaign, says the mayor should not give up the easement nor let the council have a say, because that would erode the executive branch’s powers.

While the church has said it will keep the plaza open, as it does on Temple Square, there would be no guarantee of access without the easement. In the future — say if there were a terrorist strike — the church could wall off the area or “Vatican-ize it,” the former mayor said.

“That would cut off the northern part of our city. The city needs to keep itself whole. It can’t afford to cut itself off,” Wilson said.

In the meantime, Anderson’s office is writing constitutionally allowed restrictions on behavior for the plaza that would need council approval. On Tuesday, the council will set a hearing date for early next month to allow the public to discuss an option the council believes it has — to rewrite the original ordinance that vacated Main Street between North Temple and South Temple and eliminate mention of the easement. And the church is appealing the 10th Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 16, 2002.
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