ACLU Returns to Court in Controversy Over Free Speech On Salt Lake City's "Main Street Plaza"

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
August 7, 2003 12:00 am

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SALT LAKE CITY – The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah today returned to court in the controversy over the Mormon Church’s ability to restrict free speech rights on the city’s Main Street Plaza, saying that city officials have failed to respect a federal court ruling that the plaza is a public forum.

“”The city cannot simply decide that it is too much trouble to perform its basic governmental duty to regulate competing uses on a significant downtown pedestrian passage and public place,”” said Dani Eyer, Executive Director of the ACLU of Utah, which filed the lawsuit together with the national ACLU.

Rather than assume its obligation to regulate this space, the city acquiesced to the demands of the Church and created a powerful platform for the Church to promulgate its message on a range of social, political and religious issues while prohibiting others from sharing their own messages on the same issues in the same place and in the same manner, the ACLU said in legal papers.

At issue is a block of Main Street that Salt Lake City officials sold to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in 1999. The city retained an easement for public access and passage, but the church placed restrictions on speech and behavior on the plaza. Those restrictions were struck down last year by a federal appeals court in a challenge brought by the ACLU. The church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to review the decision.

The ACLU filed today’s lawsuit on behalf of two religious organizations, two social activist groups and two individuals, some of who were plaintiffs in the ACLU’s original lawsuit over the use of the plaza.

In legal papers filed today, the ACLU said that “”the City’s rewriting of the original deal is nothing more than a cynical effort to sidestep the Court of Appeals decision and to allow the LDS Church to discriminate against speakers with critical or opposing viewpoints. Neither the First Amendment nor respect for the judicial process can be so easily jettisoned.””

“”The bottom line,”” the ACLU said, “”is that City residents and visitors alike will continue to pass through the Plaza and be ‘funneled’ to the City’s central commercial and shopping district, but as they do so they will be subjected to the LDS Church’s point of view without the ability to respond with views of their own, at the risk of being jailed for ‘trespass.'””

The city has not only acted with the purpose of advancing the LDS Church’s interests over the interests of the public, but its actions also have the effect of creating the impression that the government endorses and supports the LDS Church, the ACLU said.

“”Government favoritism of one religion over all other religious messages cannot and should not be tolerated,”” said Mark Lopez, an ACLU national staff attorney who has worked with the ACLU of Utah on both Main Street cases. “”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.””

The ACLU’s clients in today’s action are:

  • Utah Gospel Mission, founded in 1898, whose minister Kurt Van Gorden was evicted from the Plaza and arrested for peaceably passing out religious leaflets;
  • First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, plaintiffs in the original Main Street Plaza case brought by the ACLU;
  • Shundahai Network, an anti-nuclear waste group that engages in civil protest to share its message;
  • NOW of Utah, a women’s rights organization and also a plaintiff in the original Main Street Plaza case;
  • Craig Axford, a Congressional candidate, Salt Lake City taxpayer, Unitarian, and former plaintiff; and
  • Lee J. Siegel, a science news specialist and former Salt Lake Tribune and Associated Press reporter who has picketed on the Plaza.

Last Sunday, First Unitarians, plaintiffs in the first lawsuit, held a Special Congregational Meeting and voted overwhelmingly to participate in today’s legal action. The Congregation noted that participation in civil rights issues was not new to the Unitarians, but that it takes courage to stand up for the rights of all, especially if it comes at a cost to their good reputation in the community or creates confusion as an attack on the LDS Church.

The named defendants are the Salt Lake City Corporation and Ross C. “”Rocky”” Anderson, Mayor of Salt Lake City, in his official capacity.

The attorneys representing the plaintiffs in this case are Lopez of the ACLU’s National Office in New York and Janelle Eurick of the ACLU of Utah in Salt Lake City. A copy of the ACLU’s complaint is available at /node/34964.

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