FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CHEYENNE, WY – The American Civil Liberties Union today announced a
settlement granting unfettered access to the Martin’s Cove National Historic
Site, which had been leased to the Church of Latter-Day Saints by the federal
government. Prior to the settlement the only way to reach the area was through
the church’s privately owned and operated Visitor’s Center.
“The Church of Latter-Day Saints provides an important service by maintaining
this National Historic Place,” said ACLU attorney Mark Lopez, who with Megan
Hayes of Laramie, WY, brought the case on behalf of individuals who objected to
the overt religious use of the land. “However, as we say about government-funded
soup kitchens run by the Salvation Army, safeguards have to be in place to make
sure that religion is not spooned out with the meal. I think the agreement we
have negotiated provides that safeguard.”
The agreement provides for a separate access point to Martin’s Cove and
Devil’s Gate for visitors who do not want to go through the Mormon Handcart
Visitor’s Center, complete with signage and a parking lot provided by the
federal Bureau of Land Management. The BLM, in consultation with church
officials, have also adopted visitation guidelines patterned after guidelines
that govern other federal property open to the public. The church is prohibited
from using the property as an exclusive platform to promote it religious views.
Additionally, the bureau will take primary responsibility for distributing
materials explaining the historical significance of the site and any
interpretive signs that have religious content will be removed and all signs
placed by the government will be clearly labeled as such.
“Both the separate entry and the removal of religious signs were essential if
the public was to have any sense that this land is held in common by all
Americans, regardless of religious belief,” said Christopher Krupp, a Staff
Attorney at the Western Lands Project, an ACLU partner in reaching the
Congress had approved a long-term lease agreement with the church that gave
them near total control over the management of National Historic Site.
The plaintiffs in Western Land Exchange Project et al, v. Norton have common
historical interest in the leased land and surrounding area, the ACLU said in
legal papers. Each objected to what they believe was the misuse of federal lands
by a religious organization to establish sole control over the land and to
Martin’s Cove, a registered National Historic Place, is located approximately
55 miles southwest of Casper, at the confluence of the Oregon, California,
Mormon, and Pony Express Trails, all major migratory routes. The site is
considered significant to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints because Mormon
pioneers traveling west in the Martin Handcart Company took refuge there during
a winter storm in 1856 in which more than 200 people perished.
Participants in the case included Green River residents Jennifer Sorensen and
Kevin Holdsworth, who are descendents of the original pioneers, married and are
both professors at Western Wyoming Community College; Susan M. Wozny of Laramie,
who was repeatedly asked by Mormon guides about her religious affiliation and
was limited in her access to the park during a visit; William Young of Medicine
Bow, a long time Wyoming resident and a Quaker who felt the Mormons had been
singled out for special treatment by the government; and the Western Lands
Project (formerly the Western Lands Exchange Project) which fights the
privatization of public lands and advocates for public access to decision making
about federal lands.
More than 100,000 people visit Martin’s Cove annually. All visitors to the
site have had to enter by way of the Mormon Visitor’s Center located on a nearby
ranch owned by the Church. It is estimated that 85 to 90 percent of these
visitors are Mormon.
The ACLU noted that the lease agreement gave the church the right to exclude
visitors based on their viewpoints and expression of those opinions. The lease
agreement also did not require the church to provide access to groups presenting
a competing, non-sectarian version of historic events at Martin’s Cove.
The settlement is online at: www.aclu.org/religion/govtfunding/25806lgl20060607.html