LDS church takes over Salt Lake City block

Associated Press/July 29, 2003

Salt Lake City -- The city and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints completed a land swap Monday that gives the church the right to regulate behavior on the downtown block of Main Street it purchased from the city.

In return for giving up an easement that allowed unfettered access on the Main Street block, the city received two acres of land to build a community center on the city's west side. Federal courts had ruled that the city's sidewalk easement carried free speech rights the church could not curtail.

"We took a lot of public input. There were passionate positions on all sides," Mayor Rocky Anderson said after Monday's signing. "But I think when all is said and done this is the best resolution and is going to bring about some great things for this community."

The agreement gives the church complete control over the Main Street block, which after its purchase from the city was transformed into a pedestrian mall spruced up with gardens, fountains and a giant reflecting pool.

It's a popular downtown location where newlyweds pose outside the Mormon temple for photos. But it has also drawn protesters, who like to bash the church's conservative values and have disrupted some photo shoots.

The church originally tried to impose rules for the plaza, including prohibitions on swearing, smoking, protesting, passing out leaflets, proselytizing, sunbathing, playing music, carrying firearms, or "offensive, indecent, obscene, vulgar, lewd or disorderly speech, dress or conduct."

But critics, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit to overturn the original sale, arguing that the church's restrictions interfered with the constitutional rights of citizens.

Last October, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled the church could not restrict speech or other activities on the sidewalks that run through its plaza. The U.S. Supreme Court declined last month to review that decision.

Bishop Dave Burton, who signed Monday's agreement along with Anderson, Salt Lake City philanthropist James Sorenson and billionaire Jon Huntsman, said that although the public now has no legal right to enter the plaza, the church has no plans to actually curtail public access.

"Unless there's something that really disrupts, is really negative toward the ownership of the plaza, we don't say much," Burton said. "As long as they don't disrupt."

In return for surrendering its easement, the city gets land for a planned multicultural community center in a working-class neighborhood on the city's west side, to be built using money donated by Sorenson and Huntsman's group, Alliance for Unity.

Burton said the new guidelines weren't set as of Monday, but said most visitors have shown respect. Those who don't are welcome to protest on city property adjacent to the plaza, Burton said.

"I'd say 99.9 percent of those who come on the property are there to enjoy it," he said.

But the consequences for those who push the church's rules remained unclear Monday. As private property, church security could ask people to leave. If trespassers refuse to leave, the church ask police to intervene.

Any arrests could again draw out the ACLU. Dani Eyer, director of the ACLU's Utah chapter who attended Monday's signing, refused to comment afterward.

"We hope that no more lawsuits will be filed. We see no reason to further divide this community with more complaints," Burton said. "Every effort has been made to reach a compromise that everyone can live with."

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