Often-noisy S.L. plaza fight ends quietly after 7 years

About seven years ago, Stuart Reid hatched a plan to sell part of Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was the blocklong stretch of Main from South to North Temple streets.

The church wanted to close it to vehicle traffic and create an urban oasis appropriate to the center point of many of its most important Salt Lake sites.

And it wanted to restrict activities and speech that it deemed contrary to the tranquility it sought for the area, a position some protested as an infringement on their rights to free speech.

Reid, who at the time was Salt Lake City’s economic development director, thought the sale would encourage tourists to saunter down Main Street and spend money in downtown shops. He did not expect the ensuing furor that split the capital city along religious lines and resulted in a six-year legal battle.

That legal battle ends today when the appeal deadline from an October court decision passes. In that decision, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city acted appropriately in trading its easement — and the accompanying free-speech guarantees of the U.S. Constitution — for several acres of church property west of downtown. The ACLU and the plaintiffs it represented will not petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing on the case, choosing instead to let the deadline pass quietly, said Dani Eyer, executive director of the ACLU’s Utah chapter.

Both sides in the long legal battle expressed gratitude that it has ended.

LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said church leaders are glad to see the legal tug-of-war resolved. ACLU officials said they believe the controversy created a forum for discussion of issues important to many Utahns on both sides of the issue.

Today’s deadline will pass after two lawsuits, two trips to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and thousands of hours of work by attorneys and elected officials. The ACLU decided not to pursue an appeal for several reasons, including the shifting ideology of the Supreme Court this fall, national ACLU legal priorities, and “whether going forward would actually hurt us,” Eyer said.

“I guess the question I have at the end of it is, did this exacerbate the religious divide or was it an interesting civic dialogue?” Eyer said. “Instead of talking about basketball, people talked about the meaning of the Constitution and the value of the First Amendment (and) whether there is value in protecting a majority from criticism. I said it over the years, but I still maintain that this community conversation was healthy.

“It probably gained the momentum that it did because Temple Square and Main Street were not only the physical intersection of matters of church and state but the symbolic intersection as well. The metaphor is powerful.”

It was the ACLU that first questioned the city’s deal with the church in 1999 when then-legal director Stephen Clark sent a letter to then-city attorney Roger Cutler citing concerns about the city’s easement.

The city and the church agreed to sell the block of Main Street for $8.1 million in 1999, but the city retained its easement on the property, which would become an open plaza. However, as part of the sale, the church wanted to restrict types of dress, speech and conduct there.

The ACLU sued, arguing that the easement was a public right of way with constitutional protections from the First Amendment.

“I saw it was a waste of a lot of energy and divisive in the community, and I tried to urge him not to challenge the easement,” Cutler said. “I guess that’s water well under the bridge.”

During public hearings throughout the city at the time, residents split opinions on the plaza deal. Some said the plaza would harm traffic patterns, others said the city was sacrificing constitutional rights to a political and religious behemoth and others supported the plaza and the parklike atmosphere that the church built.

In 2002, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited the free-speech restrictions on the plaza, saying the plaza had a public easement with traditional protections for expression. The church appealed but then considered a proposal from Mayor Rocky Anderson to swap the easement for 2.17 acres of church-owned property in the Glendale neighborhood. The city would get land for a community center, and the church would have its easement.

Kurt Van Gorden, a protestant minister from California, was among the plaintiffs when the ACLU filed suit against the city for a second time in 2003, this time focused on the land swap. Gorden was arrested twice in April 2002 while passing out religious tracts on Main Street. He maintains that the end of the Main Street Plaza fight is the end of his free speech rights.

“We have been robbed from our free speech rights,” Gorden said. “The whole thing is a great loss.”

Anderson, who as a newly elected mayor in 1999 walked into the deal that former Mayor Deedee Corradini wrought in her last year in office, said that the effect on religious tension was the true byproduct of the fight over Main Street, not the effects on free speech.

“In terms of the impact on people’s lives — the right to express people’s opinions — none of that was really significantly impacted whatsoever by what went on here,” Anderson said. “But I think there was a sense of some people of being put upon, of having the LDS Church control the outcome, and yet on the other hand, the sense by LDS Church members that they were being treated unfairly.”

Reid and other early proponents of the 1999 deal insist the Main Street sale has proven to be an asset.

“Nothing comes easily when you’re making major change,” Corradini said. “People don’t like change, generally speaking, but in the end people will feel good that we do have a beautiful green space and open space in the middle of our city.”

As for religious split between LDS Church members and those of other faiths, Corradini said, “time tends to heal those types of things.”

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Deseret News, USA
Jan. 3, 2005
Kersten Swinyard

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 3, 2006.
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