ACLU sues Salt Lake City, mayor over Main Street plaza access

Associated Press, Aug. 7, 2003
PATTY HENETZ, Associated Press Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal suit Thursday challenging a deal that gave the Mormon church the right to regulate behavior on a downtown pedestrian block.

The lawsuit names Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the city, and asks the court to return control of the Main Street block to the city, which last week signed it over to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The ACLU accused the city of favoring one religious group over another when it completed a land swap giving up control of the landscaped plaza in exchange for land on which to build a community center.

“When government shows a preference for one religion it sends a chilling message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, and not full members of the community,” Mark Lopez, an ACLU national staff attorney, said in a statement.

Anderson on Thursday denied the suit’s claims, saying the ACLU’s legal theories were “very strange indeed.” He declined to elaborate, saying he didn’t want to reveal the city’s legal strategy.

The church is not named as a defendant, but is considering intervening in the case, said church attorney Alan Sullivan.

On July 28, the city and the church closed a deal to trade two acres of church-owned land and $388,000 in church funds for the Main Street easement. Federal courts had ruled that the city’s sidewalk easement carried free speech rights the church could not curtail.

Plaintiffs in the suit are the Utah Gospel Mission, the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, a pro-nuclear disarmament group, the Utah chapter of the National Organization for Women and two individuals.

The plaza dispute dates to April 1999, when the church paid the city $8.1 million for one block of Main Street adjacent to the church’s temple.

The church agreed to the city’s demand for public access to the block, but asked in turn that the church be allowed to restrict smoking, sunbathing, bicycling, “obscene” or “vulgar” speech, dress or conduct on the plaza.

The ACLU sued, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.

Last October, a federal appeals court ruled the church could not restrict speech or other activities on the sidewalks running through its plaza. The Supreme Court in June declined to review that decision.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 8, 2003.
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