Wyoming Residents, Including Descendants of Mormon Pioneers, Sue to Block LDS Church Control of National Historic Site

Affiliate: ACLU of Wyoming
March 9, 2005 12:00 am

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Janine Blaeloch, Founder and Director of the Western Land Exchange Project, on a recent visit to Martin’s Cove.FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: media@aclu.org

CHEYENNE, WY — Saying that visitors to a national historic site are being made to feel like outsiders on public lands, the American Civil Liberties Union today asked a federal court here to block the Bureau of Land Management from leasing the site, known as Martin’s Cove, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).

“The story of Martin’s Cove is part of a much larger history of American westward migration that is not limited to the religious significance that the site has for the Church,” said ACLU attorney Mark Lopez, who is lead counsel in the case.

“By allowing the LDS Church to control these historic public lands, the government has abdicated its responsibility to preserve those lands as part of the national trust,” he added. “Congress has singled out the LDS Church for special treatment by allowing the Church to act as gatekeeper and steward of the property.”

The lawsuit names as defendants Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Kathleen Clarke, Director of the Bureau of Land Management. The ACLU filed the case on behalf of four Wyoming residents and an environmental advocacy group who say that the Church has converted the federal property into a religious site for tens of thousands of LDS members who come to Martin’s Cove annually.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have a common historical interest in the leased land and surrounding area, the ACLU said in legal papers, and they object to what they believe is the misuse of federal lands by a religious organization to establish sole control over the land and to proselytize. Under the lease terms, public access is guaranteed, but visitors cannot avoid the overtly religious message imposed on them by LDS missionaries and signs and exhibits at the site.

According to the ACLU, the Church originally sought to purchase the Martin’s Cove site outright under legislation introduced in 2002 by then-Utah Congressman Jim Hansen, an LDS Church member. But after objections from Wyoming’s congressional delegation, the legislation failed. In 2003, without further study or debate, Congress adopted alternative legislation requiring the Bureau of Land Management to negotiate a long-term lease with the church. The Church was then granted a 25-year lease of the lands at the rate of $16,000 a year.

Martin’s Cove, a registered National Historic Place, is located approximately 55 miles southwest of Casper, at the intersection of four major western migratory trails, including the Oregon Trail. The site is considered significant to the LDS Church 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.

Descendants of those pioneers — and participants in today’s lawsuit — include Green River residents Jennifer Sorensen and Kevin Holdsworth, who are married and who are both professors at Western Wyoming Community College. “The history of western emigration does not belong exclusively to the LDS Church, or to any other group,” said Professor Holdsworth. “As the descendant of handcart pioneers, I am offended and troubled that their suffering and deaths will be co-opted and used for proselytizing purposes.”

Other clients in the lawsuit include:

  • Susan M. Wozny of Laramie. During an August 2004 visit to the park, Ms. Wozny was repeatedly asked by LDS guides about her religious affiliation and was prevented from accessing an area of the trail because Mormons had died there and it was “sacred” and “hallowed ground.”
  • William Young of Medicine Bow. Mr. Young, a longtime Wyoming resident, is the former chair of the ACLU of Wyoming’s board of directors. As a Quaker, Mr. Young feels that the federal government has singled out the LDS Church for special treatment to the exclusion of others. In 2002 he wrote a letter to the editor of the Casper Star-Tribune expressing his objection to the policy, online at /node/35372.
  • Western Land Exchange Project. Founded in 1997, WLXP supports public access to decision-making about federal lands. In 2002 the project opposed the government’s initial plans to sell the Martin’s Cove property to the LDS Church and later took part in discussions concerning the lease.

Today, more than 100,000 people visit Martin’s Cove annually. All visitors to the site must 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 LDS members.

“Wyoming’s national historic sites are part of America’s heritage, and that heritage belongs to everyone,” said Linda Burt, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wyoming. Burt noted that the lease gives the LDS Church the right to exclude visitors based on their viewpoints (such as wearing an “I Am Pro-Choice” t-shirt), and does not require the Church to provide access to groups presenting a competing, nonsectarian version of historic events at Martin’s Cove.

“This is public land,” said Janine Blaeloch, Founder and Director of the Western Land Exchange Project. “Each of us should be able to see Martin’s Cove from our own perspective, without one group controlling the experience.”

Lopez, of the ACLU national office, added that ACLU has defended religious activities on public lands — including a 2004 case supporting a Virginia church’s right to conduct baptisms in a public park — but said that this case differed because the government’s lease is clearly an attempt to endorse a religious group to the exclusion of others.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the Church’s control of the property violates religious liberty and free speech rights under the First Amendment, and seeks an order barring the 2003 lease as well as any reversion to an earlier cooperative agreement allowing the Church to control the park.

The name of the case is Western Land Exchange Project et al., v. Norton. The legal complaint is online at /node/35371.

In addition to Lopez, attorneys in today’s case are Gabrielle Prisco and Aden Fine of the ACLU National Office and Megan Hayes, an ACLU Cooperating attorney in private practice in Laramie.

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