Speech Fight Deepens in Salt Lake City

Associated Press/January 8, 2003
By Debbie Hummel

Salt Lake City -- Over the years, Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah have battled over alcohol, sex and theocratic rule. But nothing in generations has illustrated the divide more clearly than the clash over free speech on Main Street.

In 1999, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bought a block of Main Street from the city for $8.1 million. The deal linked the church's downtown complex of headquarters buildings with its sacred Temple Square.

With the city's blessing, the church banned smoking, picketing, sunbathing, bicycling and obscene or vulgar speech, dress or conduct in what used to be a public space. The city insisted only that the church keep the block open for people to pass through.

The restrictions made strange bedfellows of street fundamentalists and the faithless alike, who claimed the deal bargained away First Amendment rights.

In October, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Unitarian Church won a federal appeals court ruling that threw out the restrictions and held that the site is akin to a public sidewalk when it comes to free speech.

The church has said it will take the dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Mayor Rocky Anderson, a non-practicing Mormon and former ACLU attorney who was not in office when the deal was struck, has offered the church alternatives, including giving up all city rights to the block or imposing its own restrictions on when and where people can protest.

But the ACLU has criticized those proposals, too, and non-Mormons have seized on the issue as evidence of what they see as the church's undue influence in Utah.

"The relationship between the Mormons and the non-Mormons, I hate to define everybody else by non-Mormon, but the relationship has been pretty iffy going back 150 years," said Stephen Pace, a longtime Salt Lake City resident and critic of local government. "The thing about this Main Street plaza thing, is it has dramatically and unnecessarily picked at the scab. I don't think there's anything in the last 50 or 60 years that can compare."

All seven members of the City Council belong to the Mormon Church, and the state Legislature is at least 90 percent Mormon. Utah is about three-quarters Mormon; Salt Lake City is about 50-50, Mormons and non-Mormons.

The political dominance has produced local and state laws consistent with Mormon doctrine. Utah's liquor laws, for example, require drinkers who want something stronger than beer to buy from state-owned liquor stores or pay extra for private-club privileges at bars. Utah has also appointed the nation's first state official whose sole job is to fight pornography, which the Mormon Church views as an addiction akin to drugs. Porn czar Paula Houston is herself a member of the church.

The Main Street deal heightened the tension.

"When this happened in City Council, I was just outraged," said Craig Axford, a Salt Lake City resident who volunteered to be the taxpaying plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit. "The government literally had cut a deal with a religious institution behind closed doors."

Both sides have traded barbs near the temple and in the editorial pages of Salt Lake City's two daily newspapers. Hundreds of residents signed up to speak at a Dec. 17 City Hall hearing on the issue; tens of thousands followed the proceedings on television, radio and the Internet.

Mormon leaders have insisted the Main Street land was paid for and is rightfully church property. They have complained that because the block is open to free speech, evangelical street preachers have taunted the Mormon newlyweds who stroll the square after getting married in the temple.

Mormons David and Beverly Pratt, from nearby Provo, walked through the plaza on a recent afternoon. They said the church paid handsomely for the land, and it has become an extension of the church's other properties.

People who want to exercise their free speech rights on the Main Street plaza "can have their freedoms if they are willing to make this a place of peace," Ms. Pratt said.

"If they could have that without taunting a bride," said her husband.

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