Mormons vs. Misbehavior on Main St.

Court battle rages over a Salt Lake temple plaza where the church has enforced strict rules

Los Angeles Times/November 23, 2002
By William Lobdell

Salt Lake City -- Just outside the wrought-iron gates of the historic temple here, a Baptist preacher from Southern California politely hands out leaflets urging passersby to give up the Mormon faith. "Don't count your temple tradition greater than Jesus ... repent your sins," reads the text.

It's not easy work. Kurt Van Gorden's attempts to convert members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his kind of Christianity in the shadow of its holiest site is met with stony silence and glares. He is often photographed by church security guards. And last spring, his efforts in Main Street Plaza -- owned by the church but with public walkways running through it -- even landed him in jail for an afternoon, though no charges were filed.

"I'm sure I'm a pain to the Mormon Church," admits the Victorville resident, who says he makes the 1,200-mile round trip to Salt Lake City about once a month to follow his calling to "save" Mormons. "But do they see how much of a pain they are to the Constitution and American citizens?"

Van Gorden is one of many who have defied attempts by church leaders to regulate behavior in Main Street Plaza, a block of Main Street that the city sold to the church in 1999 for $8.1 million. Others include civil liberties activists and ordinary residents fed up with what they perceive as Mormon domination.

The debate has escalated into a lawsuit, now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, that asks: Is the park a private place where visitors should act like guests of the church? Or do the public walkways allow for free, even offensive, speech in the shadows of the granite temple built by Brigham Young and other Mormon pioneers?

The case also has created an unlikely group of national allies for the church, organizations as diverse as the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs and the National League of Cities, which are worried that an adverse ruling could wipe out the notion of limited easements that allow public access to beaches, mountain trails and other places.

But it's more than a debate over civil liberties. In some ways this also is a dialogue over the soul of this city. Though Mormons predominate in Utah, and the church is by far the city's most powerful institution, less than half of Salt Lake residents belong to the church. While all seven City Council members are Mormons, the city's powerful mayor is often critical of the church.

The idea to turn a block of Main Street into a pedestrian plaza was first proposed 40 years ago as part of a downtown revitalization plan. The city agreed in 1999 to sell the narrow slice of property running along the front of Temple Square to the church, which then spent more than $10 million creating an oasis of serenity with brick walkways, fountains, a reflecting pool, trees and flowers.

The idea was to create a strip of parkland that would unite Temple Square and the church's administrative buildings across Main Street. In an effort to accommodate the general public, however, city officials struck a deal with the church: The sale agreement called for a restricted public easement that allows pedestrians in the park at any hour but under strict rules.

The agreement gave church security officers power to decide who was violating the rules. They could bar, for example, non-Mormon groups holding protests or distributing literature, women wearing halter tops and men without shirts. One newspaper columnist reported a microbrewery worker being escorted from the plaza for wearing a shirt that read: "We support 3.2% tithing and 10% beer."

Though the proposal for Main Street Plaza was discussed in numerous public hearings and community meetings, news of the completed deal in 1999 shocked many in town, said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the 500-family First Unitarian Church. Soon afterward, his church became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city contending the deal improperly gave away public rights. The Mormon Church joined in the defense.

Meanwhile, work proceeded on the park and the faithful and protesters alike flocked to the plaza when it opened in the fall of 2000. On most days, a seemingly endless stream of young brides in white gowns poses for photos in front of the plaza's reflecting pool, with the temple's 210-foot-high spires soaring in the background.

But the religious atmosphere is sometimes interrupted by shouts from protesters in the plaza, just a few yards from the temple's front door.

"It's always heckling," said Donna Busath, a Salt Lake City resident who recently spoke before the City Council. "It's totally disrespectful. No cultured person would go outside the gates of someone's sacred building and do that."

But Mormon critics argue that the church sends out an estimated 65,000 missionaries each year to proselytize on private property that many consider sacred: people's homes.

"They've told us that this is a holy place," Van Gorden said, standing outside the east gates of Temple Square. "But our home is a holy place too. For us it's no different."

Goldsmith, the Unitarian pastor, said he finds evangelists who work just outside the temple to be both rude and intolerant.

"I'm personally nauseated by this Los Angeles guy [Van Gorden]," Goldsmith said. "That's not what we're about. But we had to protest."

The city and church won the first legal round last year when a federal district judge dismissed the suit, ruling that the restrictions were reasonable for an "ecclesiastical park."

But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed the ruling, finding that "the city may not exchange the public's constitutional rights even for other public benefits." Church officials have suspended enforcement of the behavior rules but plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This is kind of ironical," said H. David Burton, the church's presiding bishop in charge of business affairs. "This was an outreach to the community. This was an expenditure of millions of dollars, not only to enhance the downtown and enhance the church campus, but to reach out to the community and say, 'Here is a place you can come and sit and not be disturbed.' It's interesting that with that kind of outreach, we're in this kind of dilemma."

Mayor Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson, a former ACLU leader and lapsed Mormon, is leading one effort to settle the dispute. He plans to propose to the City Council as early as this week a revised set of limitations -- time-place-and-manner restrictions, in legal parlance -- on visitors to the property. He believes the restrictions, applied to everyone, including Mormons, will be constitutionally sound and in line with rules at other sensitive public venues across the country.

Another proposal, backed by Mormon leaders and members, is simply to give up the public easement. Church officials point out that a separate provision of the sale agreement binds them to provide 24-hour public access even if the park becomes entirely private property; in such a case, however, the church would be protected from legal challenges to any limits it imposes.

"There seems to be a simple solution that would keep everybody in the same position they were in at the time the sale took place," Burton said. "With that, the church would have the opportunity of exercising its property rights. Of course, the city would be guaranteed that the citizenry would have access."

This option also is supported by the Mormon-dominated City Council. It recently hired its own attorney to determine if it can usurp the mayor's traditional authority in property matters and give the public walkways to the church.

But that solution could lead to even more litigation, from the mayor or ACLU.

"It would be an abdication of the city's responsibility and the abdication of the key thing that the city bargained for here," said Stephen C. Clark, an ACLU attorney who filed the original suit and promised another if the public easement is given away. "A gift to the church would create a whole new set of constitutional issues."

Under Anderson's direction, the city halted its legal defense after the federal appeals court ruling, leaving the church momentarily alone in the legal battle. But 20 organizations joined the church in its fight, concerned that the use of limited public easements -- such as paths to the beach or trail heads over public property -- could be wiped out by an adverse ruling.

"It has potentially mammoth consequences around the country, because of all the implications that that could portend for other kinds of institutions and the granting of easements, period," Burton said. "I don't know if there's ever been a time in the history of our church that so many others joined with us. We're usually a little bit out there alone."

The battle over public opinion in Salt Lake City remains fierce. The church distributed thousands of brochures to residents and leaders this week arguing its position.

The City Council plans to hold a "fact-finding" hearing next month that will feature testimony from original participants in the 1999 Main Street Plaza deal.

And liberal forces in the city continue to lobby their mayor, who is up for reelection next year, to make sure he doesn't waver on his vow to keep the sidewalks public.

"It would be a huge betrayal to the people of this community to convey [the easement] to the church," Anderson said.

Meanwhile, Mormon officials have agreed to abide by the ruling of the federal appeals court and allow free speech on the public walkways of Main Street Plaza.

But even that is tricky.

Hoping to restore his fading summer tan, Tom Lowery took advantage of a recent Indian summer afternoon in Salt Lake City, stripping off his teal polo shirt to sunbathe in Main Street Plaza park.

Sitting on the grass -- and not on the public walkway -- he had only been soaking up rays for a few minutes when two church security guards in blue blazers and wearing tiny earpieces cast their shadows on him.

"Could you please do us a favor and put on your shirt?" one asked politely. "This is private property."

Lowery, 51, shook his head. "Nope," he replied. "I believe this area has been ruled public by the courts."

The guards threatened to call the police. Lowery told them to go ahead. And the stalemate continued.

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