The New York Times, June 12, 2003
After a four-year battle between free-speech advocates and the Mormon Church, Salt Lake City has agreed to a plan that gives the church the right to restrict behavior on a downtown plaza that has been a public easement in exchange for giving the city two acres of land for a new community center.
The Main Street Plaza has been the focus of a highly contentious dispute over the church’s rights to restrict behavior. Prohibited behavior for the plaza included demonstrating, sunbathing, playing loud music and uttering profanities.
In a 6-0 vote, with one abstention, the City Council endorsed a plan on Tuesday night by Mayor Ross C. Anderson. It removes the plaza’s public easement status in exchange for the donation of the land on which a community center would be built. The plan also includes $5 million in private donations toward construction of the center. The agreement goes into effect in 35 days if no further legal challenges emerge.
The dispute began in 1999 when the city sold one block of Main Street to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for $8.1 million. The church used the land to create a single campus, joining its main temple with offices. As part of that deal, the church created an easement that allowed public access but set up strict guidelines of behavior.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued, contending that the agreement violated the First Amendment. In October, a panel at the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled that the restrictions were illegal and that the city had to maintain rights of free speech on the easement.
“I never thought a block of our main street should have been sold in the first place,” the mayor said in a telephone interview yesterday. He was not in office when the block was sold to the church.
“It’s a very difficult issue in a community that’s too often divided along religious lines,” Mayor Anderson, who was raised Mormon, said. “It’s also a very thorny legal problem, but I feel like we reached the absolute best possible resolution.”