Free Speech, Religion Collide on SLC Plaza

The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 5, 2003

    They did not want to hear him. They had even warned him to keep quiet. But the preacher pressed on, boldly proclaiming his faith outside the meetinghouse.

    The defiant but determined missionary was Parley P. Pratt, reading from the Book of Mormon in Ohio in 1835 just months after he was made an apostle under LDS founder and prophet Joseph Smith.

    Lonnie Pursifull and other evangelicals — who say they are called to preach to and against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — want to be heard, too. They have placed themselves out- side the LDS Temple on the Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City, sharing their faith, but also taking swipes against Mormon doctrine.

    “I don’t agree with what they preach,” says Pursifull, a Utah Baptist. “They have the right to be in America, to go out and spread their message whatever way they see fit. They think we don’t have a right to constitutional rights, but they do.”

    In the months of sometimes-bitter Main Street Plaza discussions, relatively little has been said about the merits of the First Amendment or its importance in the LDS Church’s religious practices and past.

    “What we have is a First Amendment and a First Commandment [religion] face-off,” says Edwin Firmage, a University of Utah law professor and expert in constitutional issues and Utah history.

    And the clash is about a street holy to both camps: Main Street is the historical, somewhat symbolic, birthplace of free-speech rights, and Salt Lake City’s Main Street is the literal threshold to what Mormons consider some of their most sacred grounds.

    Instead, the LDS Church and city leaders have shifted the focus from a First Amendment issue to one primarily of private property.

    So far, church arguments are winning — at a potentially great cost to the First Amendment’s free speech and free exercise of religion clauses, argue Firmage and others.

    At public hearings about the plaza, speakers downplay so-called free speech, as one man put it. Elected leaders, including Mayor Rocky Anderson, an American Civil Liberties Union cardholder, usually mention ethics, about living up to the intention of former city leaders and church officials to eliminate free speech on the patch between North Temple and South Temple.

    And people who want the city to keep the easement — and thus maintain free speech on the plaza — have not been called patriots or freedom-lovers, but rather labeled “anti-Mormon” and divisive.

    “It has been couched in so many other terms that are negative,” says Dani Eyer, executive director of Utah’s ACLU chapter, which successfully sued the city claiming the speech restrictions on the plaza were unconstitutional. The city is now on the road to relinquishing the easement to the church, and negating what many saw as a First Amendment victory.

    “The free speech issues almost become lost,” Eyer says.

    “People give lip service to free expression but become offended if someone says something on the public space, on the Main Street Plaza, that they don’t agree with,” she says. “They could look upon that as the literal manifestation of our most basic civil liberty — free expression — and honor it.”

    Adds Firmage: “We learn by conversing together. By meeting in the town square. Even by squabbling amongst ourselves. In families, in community. Main Street and the temple.”

    Peace vs. Protests: Many residents point to plaza preachers such as Pursifull as proof that people speaking their minds don’t belong on the plaza. The story of a wedding day ruined by megaphone-wielding zealots is told and retold.

    However, existing city laws against disturbing the peace and amplified music already prohibit such behavior, according to Anderson.

    By giving up the easement, the city also would eliminate other expression on the plaza. Residents have wanted to perform an American Indian blessing there, voice opposition to a possible war against Iraq and pass out religious literature.

    None would be allowed.

    Utahns for Fairness wants to be able to protest the LDS Church’s stand and political campaign against gay marriage on the plaza. The group joined the ACLU lawsuit to ensure its members could gather hand in hand around Temple Square “as the cultural epicenter of Mormonism,” says Jared Wood.

    The National Organization for Women, which fought for the LDS Church-opposed Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, also sued. So did the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, because church members worried that gay couples would be forbidden from walking across the plaza, and they did not like the idea of the LDS Church having the sole right to proselytize on the parcel.

    “The LDS Church likes the fact that the Bible thumpers are using bullhorns,” says Wood, who notes that Utahns for Fairness holds silent protests.

    “Dissent can be reverent. But even our silent protests were offensive to the LDS Church. They are afraid of free speech because they are afraid of free thinking. It is time for our community to stop pandering to the fear of insecure Mormon leadership.”

    Church officials declined to comment. But they repeatedly have said they do not believe they are stepping on civil rights. People who want to protest or gather can do it elsewhere, on the “miles” of nearby sidewalk.

    LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton has wondered aloud whether it is “too much to ask” to have the plaza free of dissent. Many church members have taken the same tack. At a public hearing, one resident cried at the idea of her child hearing people bash her church.

    Eyer, a one-time social studies and English teacher, understands the desire to create a peaceful environment for children. Her family didn’t have a television until last year.

    But “they are going to be challenged with ideas different from their own their entire life. They need to know how to analyze those. Those are more important skills than saying, ‘No one can say something I don’t like.’ “

    Firmage — who said he unsuccessfully tried to persuade the church’s First Presidency to accept “time, place and manner” regulations that would allow for speech on the plaza’s east sidewalk — has a somewhat tongue-in-cheek solution for encounters between Mormons and preachers: “Just give them some green Jell-O.”

    On a more serious note, he adds: “Avert your eyes. We preach faith. How about practicing it? Have a little faith people are decent.”

    And while Firmage agrees protesters and preachers can gather right next to the plaza and express the same message, the fact the plaza is on Main Street cannot be ignored. After all, he says, “Main Street USA” is where the Bill of Rights was born. By rallying the public in tent-meeting revivals, streets and parks, he says, Thomas Jefferson’s party defeated attempts to kill the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

    To deny speech rights on Main Street is “a hard slap at the mother lode,” Firmage says. It’s also a slippery slope. “If we start to denigrate the First Amendment, remember what that says: It protects [the free exercise of] religion. If you don’t allow speech, what do Mormon missionaries do?”

    Past Persecution: LDS cultural and legal history may explain the church’s strategy to gain the easement and its uncompromising position against free speech on the plaza.

    Church leaders’ focus on the plaza being private makes sense to Jan Shipps, one of the foremost non-LDS scholars of Mormonism. “There is an understanding [of] this part of Salt Lake City [as] being Mormon. They understand the rest of the city is public space, as it were.”

    Plus, she notes, the private-property argument is probably a more winning argument.

    The LDS Church has a history of losing on First Amendment issues. But it has usually been on the other side, fighting for speech and exercise of religion rights, according to Firmage’s book, Zion in the Courts. The most famous example is when Mormons tried to argue that the free-exercise clause protected polygamy. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1878 disagreed.

    The 19th century was one long civil-rights persecution of Mormons, according to Zion in the Courts. Members were run out of Illinois and Missouri, where the governor had issued an order to exterminate them. Federal troops invaded Utah when it was a territory. Federal judges would not naturalize Mormon immigrants. Mormons were denied the right to vote and be on juries.

    That history is not easily forgotten, says Dean May, University of Utah history professor. “There is a residual vigilance that comes from the historical experience of the Mormon people. That’s one thing that people don’t understand about the Mormon people. Like the Jewish people, they have a real history that gives cohesiveness and sensitivity to issues and certain among [the issues] is a history of persecution.”

    Some say that history — and the church’s reliance on the First Amendment — should make the church more protective of the First Amendment on the plaza. Mormons used to preach on the street. They believe the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired. They use the First Amendment to proselytize door to door across the nation.

    Last year, the church supported a lawsuit filed to the U.S. Supreme Court over an Ohio town law that said solicitors, including Jehovah’s Witness missionaries, must obtain permits. Church officials lauded the court when it struck down the law, saying it reaffirmed the importance of the First Amendment right to share religious beliefs.

    “When people want to ring the door on Main Street, they say get off our property,” says Kurt Van Gorden, a preacher from California who was arrested for passing out literature on the plaza before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision. “The persecuted have now become the persecutors in what they’ve been doing to people like me, in trying to prevent me from the free exercise of my beliefs on the easement.”

    Yet, when they relate the Main Street Plaza to the First Amendment, church leaders say Mormons’ rights are being violated. They say the 10th Circuit decision hinders the church’s right to free exercise of religion because it prevents the creation of a peaceful environment on its campus.

    “It’s anti-Mormonism plain and simple,” May agrees. “They are being denied their free exercise of religion by people who wish to make sacred places profane.”

    But the evangelical preachers don’t see it that way. “We’re not out there because we hate LDS people,” says Brent Hardy, a Baptist from Utah who works with Van Gorden and passes out religious literature on the plaza. “We’re out there for just the opposite. We love them, we care enough about them to tell them the truth.”

    In the past, when the LDS Church was oppressed, its most infamous response was to destroy a Nauvoo newspaper that criticized the church.

    That story reminds some people of the church’s position on the plaza. “There’s nothing new that’s changed. It’s different leaders doing the same,” Pursifull says.

    May says people use the Expositor story to “attack the Mormon church” on First Amendment issues. “But you never hear a word about mobs in Missouri who destroyed a Mormon press.”

    Today, Mormons are using freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment to erase it on the plaza. They have rallied at City Hall, signed petitions to urge the government to give up on the easement. Some even temporarily collected signatures on the plaza. “I don’t see much irony,” says Robert Hanks, who created Friends of the Main Street Plaza. “I have never in any way wanted to deny anybody their civil rights. There are a few people out there that are kind of nuts, make it a horrible, ugly thing. They still have the right to do that.”

    Firmage says it is time for church leaders to write a new chapter about Mormons and the First Amendment.

    “Now’s a chance to look at a former theocracy emerging from that cocoon with a vibrant free-exercise clause and a muscular free-speech clause. Or we can find both of them weakened by what we do here.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday January 11, 2003.
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