Despite Salt Lake City’s efforts to “buffer” LDS Church members and stationary street preachers, those attending the church’s annual general conference next weekend can expect to be sermonized as usual by members of the World Wide Street Preachers’ Fellowship.
Representatives of the group vowed Friday that they will not abide by the city’s latest buffer plans, and the fellowship sought a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City asking a federal judge to bar the city from establishing physical zones where preachers must stand while preaching during the most crowded times of conference weekend.
“We’re prepared to go to jail if we have to,” street preacher Lonnie Pursifull said. “We’re not going to be put into a box.”
The court filing comes after Salt Lake City released details of its plan to create free-speech zones across the street from the LDS Conference Center where preachers must stand when holding signs. When mobile, the preachers would be allowed to cross the street and mingle with conferencegoers, but those preachers would have to stay moving so as not to block pedestrian traffic. Also, on the conference side of North Temple there is a small zone where preachers can stand while holding signs.
In court documents the preachers argue the city is sheltering and favoring the LDS Church while violating the rights of the preachers to practice their religion, which, according to the Bible, calls them to “stand” and “preach the gospel to every creature.”
“You got some people up there in the City Council favoring one religion over another, and we aren’t going to have a hard time proving that,” Street Preachers’ Fellowship director Ron McRae said. “I don’t think there’s a federal judge in Denver (where the 10th Circuit is based) that’s not going to agree with us.”
The city adopted the zones, designed to create a buffer between LDS Church members and preachers, after an LDS Church attorney asked the city to create “buffer” areas to shield conferencegoers from the preachers. At first City Attorney Ed Rutan and Mayor Rocky Anderson declined to include buffer zones when reviewing the city’s free-speech laws. However, last week the city announced it would create the zones.
The city’s review of the free-speech laws followed the LDS Church’s semiannual general conference last October, when two street preachers were assaulted by conference attendees. The two attackers became enraged when the preachers donned church clothing sacred to the LDS faithful. Many, including a group of evangelical Christians called Standing Together Ministries, have since decried the preachers for using what they consider mean-spirited tactics when preaching.
It is unclear who at City Hall developed the idea of the speech zones. Even some City Council members who spoke to the Deseret Morning News were unclear on how the zones developed.
A press release from the city attributed the idea to the city’s police department, though the release was issued by the mayor’s office.
City Attorney Ed Rutan said Friday he wouldn’t comment on who at City Hall developed the plan or if he or the mayor liked the idea.
Anderson didn’t return calls for comment Friday, and Rutan said he wouldn’t comment on any aspects of the case.
McRae maintains the city kowtowed to the LDS Church in creating the zones. In court, McRae said, the city will have to prove that the majority of LDS Church members are inclined to violence and can’t help but assault the street preachers, necessitating the buffer zones.
“The majority of Mormons out there are very nice people and are not violent at all,” McRae said. “They are going to have to prove that we street preachers need to be protected (in buffer zones) because the vast majority of Mormons are violent.”
Since most LDS Church members are generally peaceful, McRae said, the city’s real motivation is not to protect the street preachers from assaults but to shield LDS Church members from their message.
Dani Eyer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said she believes the city’s buffer zone plan is constitutional. However, she said it does seem that the city is going to extraordinary lengths to protect the LDS Church from the preachers.
In fact, Eyer said, the U.S. Supreme Court has less-strict buffer zone rules in front of its Washington, D.C., building than the city has planned in front of the church’s Conference Center.
“It’s interesting they would have stronger protections for the LDS Church than the Supreme Court has on its own sidewalks,” Eyer said.
Local civil rights attorney Brian Barnard agreed that the city’s zones are apparently acceptable under the First Amendment, but like Eyer he suspected the city is trying to protect the LDS Church.
“I think everybody should be able to designate a free speech zone in front of their house so when the Mormon missionaries come and knock at their door they can say, ‘OK, go stand out in that free-speech zone on my sidewalk,’ ” Barnard said.
Like the street preachers, ACLU of Utah has made claims about the city’s tight relationship with the LDS Church. In its current Main Street Plaza suit, the ACLU argues that the city bent to the wishes of the LDS Church when it traded its easement on the plaza to the LDS Church. The trade, according to the ACLU’s suit, was unconstitutional in part because the trade allowed the city to protect the LDS Church from preachers and others who might want to use the plaza.
McRae, who already sees conspiracy In Salt Lake City’s relation to the LDS Church, was further concerned when his request for a temporary restraining order was assigned to U.S. District Chief Judge Dee Benson, who is away at a chief judges conference in Washington, D.C., until Thursday. Having the case heard on Thursday will give the street preachers little time for appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver if Benson, who is LDS, rules against them, McRae said.
“In all the years we’ve been doing this we have never heard of a court assigning an emergency order to a judge who is on vacation,” McRae said.
Along with the restraining order, the street preachers also are suing the city for the wrongful arrest of Pursifull, who was taken to jail Feb. 8, 2003, during a 2002 Winter Olympics anniversary party for holding a sign that stated “Mormons have another Jesus.” City prosecutor Sim Gill later said Pursifull had committed no crime.