Baptist street preachers, never fearful of stirring the pot as they preach to LDS Church members, say they plan to sermonize on Main Street Plaza this weekend as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marks its 173rd Semi-annual General Conference.
"There's a good chance will we be going to the plaza on Sunday," street preacher Lonnie Pursifull said. "Our permission comes straight from God."
Pursifull, Utah director of the World Wide Street Preachers Fellowship, said about 30 preachers plan to evangelize at general conference. While most preachers stick to the public sidewalks in front of the church's new Conference Center, Pursifull said some are preparing to head for the plaza Sunday to test the LDS Church's authority to control speech there.
Late Thursday, Randall Wenger, attorney with Clymer & Musser Attorneys at Law based in Lancaster, Pa., sent a letter to City Attorney Ed Rutan and Salt Lake City Police Department detective Jay Rhoades warning the city to refrain from arresting or hindering the preachers on the plaza.
"It is an unconstitutional abuse of authority to allow private citizens, even the Mormon Church, to direct law enforcement officers to deny First Amendment-protected demonstrators access to traditional public fora," the letter stated.
Saturday will commence the first general conference since the Salt Lake City Council voted to give the LDS Church authority to regulate behavior and speech on Main Street Plaza, which was formerly a public forum as part of Main Street downtown.
That vote, which traded the city's public access easement, including guarantees of free speech and expression, to the church for two acres of land in Glendale where a community center will be built, is being challenged by several plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The plaintiffs claim the city helped "establish" the LDS Church by giving up free speech and public access on the plaza. The church had wanted to control the plaza so it could ban street preachers and others who might be critical of the church in the shadow of its world headquarters and Salt Lake Temple.
Still, many, including the ACLU, say the deal is unconstitutional. And the street preachers may test it this weekend.
As property owner, the church can't kick the preachers off the plaza. But it can call city police officers, who have the authority to make the preachers leave, in handcuffs if necessary.
Pursifull said an arrest could be the trigger for another lawsuit against the city's decision to give the church control over the plaza. Pursifull said the street preachers are seeking to keep any legal action they might take separate from the ACLU's suit.
Prior to receiving the letter, Rutan said city officials had met to discuss what action the city should take if street preachers did show up on the plaza. Those discussions, Rutan said, were similar to discussions the city, along with its police department, has every LDS Church general conference.
"We just kind of had some brief conversations going through the usual preparations," he said. "This is not the first time conference has been held."
The initial Main Street Plaza suit came after the city sold a block of Main Street to the LDS Church in 1999 for $8.1 million. In that sale the city reserved a public-access easement across the plaza but gave the church the authority to prohibit protests and proselytizing, certain dress and other things the LDS Church finds offensive.
The ACLU of Utah sued Salt Lake City over the restrictions, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the city cannot have public access on the plaza while forbidding certain types of speech there.
Next the city reached its current deal to make the plaza entirely private and forsake guarantees of free expression and pedestrian passage on it.
Thursday the ACLU of Utah, with a half-dozen plaintiffs, filed suit challenging the community center deal on the basis that it takes away constitutional guarantees of free expression and was too favorable for the LDS Church.