Mormons Seek Control of Salt Lake Block

AP Online/November 26, 2002

Salt Lake City -- After a federal court said the Mormon Church cannot ban demonstrations on the Main Street block it purchased from the city, the church said it might be willing to pay for the public easement as a way to restrict pedestrians' behavior.

The church also said it would give up its own right to proselytize on the property, which the church bought for $8.1 million in 1999 and turned into a plaza with fountains, reflecting pools, plants and statues.

The amount the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would pay the city for the easement would have to be negotiated, Elder Lance B. Wickman, the church's general counsel, said Monday.

"What I'm trying to communicate is that we're willing to have a discussion with the city about the conditions for extinguishing the easement,'' Wickman said.

But Mayor Rocky Anderson has refused to give up the easement, which guarantees people passage across the plaza. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Oct. 9 that the easement also guarantees pedestrians free-speech rights on the area, formerly a 660-foot section of Main Street in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City.

The dispute arose after the church imposed rules restricting protests, demonstrations and other activities--even smoking--on the passage.

The city went along, writing into law a provision saying nothing in the easement "shall be deemed to create or constitute a public forum, limited or otherwise, on the property.''

In addition to smoking, the church had banned sunbathing, bicycling and "any illegal, offensive, indecent, obscene, vulgar, lewd or disorderly speech, dress or conduct.'' It also claimed the right to ban anyone who violated the rules.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sued on behalf of Salt Lake City's First Unitarian Church and others, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional. The 10th Circuit panel overturned a judge who sided with the church.

Anderson suggests all sides wait for his office to recommend constitutionally allowed time, place and manner restrictions for behavior on the plaza. Wickman said Monday that such regulations won't work because they would let people protest and hand out leaflets on the plaza. "That's unacceptable to us.''

Regarding forgoing proselytizing on the plaza, Wickman said, "We're willing to consider the plaza as some kind of a neutral zone. That is to say, we don't have any plans to be using it for proselytizing.''

But Anderson said he does not support such a restriction.

"I would say that any restrictions on the LDS church exercising religious freedom on its own property would itself be a violation of the First Amendment guarantee. I won't be a party to that,'' he said.

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