Conference plan questioned
Salt Lake City would impede street preachers making claims against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but wouldn’t restrict groups with a pro-LDS message, City Attorney Ed Rutan said in federal court Tuesday.
Rutan’s comments seemed to startle U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who responded that allowing pro-LDS speakers less restriction than anti-LDS speakers was tantamount to the city favoring one point of view over another.
“You’ve thrown into question everything you’ve told me before,” Campbell said.
But Rutan argued the city’s designs were basically content-neutral because they still would allow anti-LDS groups to voice their opinions. They would just have to do it while surrounded by a gate or other impediment, thereby lessening the chance of arguing or fights.
“We would give them the same area, but we would look at the question of whether we would need to have buffering around that area,” Rutan said.
Campbell wondered why the city was only now attempting to use buffering impediments and place street preachers in protest areas for general conference.
After all, Campbell said, preachers and conferencegoers have been existing together under existing city law for years.
Her questions came as part of her deliberations on a restraining order sought by the World Wide Street Preachers Fellowship. The group is challenging the city’s “buffer zone” plan for the LDS Church’s annual general conference this weekend.
The fellowship is seeking a temporary restraining order barring the city from establishing physical zones where preachers must stand while preaching during the most crowded times of conference weekend.
The court filing came after Salt Lake City released details of its plan to create free-speech zones across the street from the LDS Conference Center where preachers would have to stand when holding signs.
When changing locations, preachers would be allowed to cross the street and mingle with conferencegoers, but those preachers would have to stay moving and not block pedestrian traffic. Also, on the conference side of North Temple, a small zone would be designated where preachers could stand while holding signs.
Rutan said two minor scuffles at the LDS Church’s October conference caused the city to rethink its free-speech-zone logistics.
Street preachers this past fall wore sacred LDS clothing around their necks, enraging two conference attendees who grabbed the clothes from the preachers. One man was charged with misdemeanor assault.
But Campbell and an attorney for the street preachers wondered if two incidents involving two people out of the more than 100,000 people attending conference twice a year warranted such strong city reaction.
Normally, cities that enact protest zones or buffering measures do so after serious violence or riots, not two misdemeanor arrests, said Randall Wenger, an attorney for the preachers. He noted both instances were quickly taken care of by police and there were no secondary problems such as blocking of sidewalks or traffic flow.
“We have concern that these zones are not content-neutral, when you look at the background of what’s been happening with the Mormon Church and Salt Lake City,” Wenger said. “It speaks of a real favoring of one religion over another.”
Because the city is apparently considering the content of people’s speech when weighing its buffering policies, Campbell said she would likely give the plan “strict scrutiny” and would deliver her decision Thursday morning.
The preachers are also suing to void the city’s recently passed additions to its disturbing the peace ordinance.
Campbell seemed to agree with the preachers that the ordinance was constitutionally vague. Rutan, however, agreed to stipulate to a court order that the city would not enforce the ordinance except in compliance with its new free-speech guidelines, which are based on federal case law.
Given the court order, Campbell said she would rule the ordinance unconstitutional.
Campbell is also weighing the city’s long-standing noise ordinance and whether street preachers can be arrested for using cheerleader-type megaphones while preaching.