ACLU Wins Open Access for All Visitors to Martin’s Cove National Historic Site in Wyoming
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 agreement.
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 proselytize.
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