Coming off a lovely week-long family reunion, I saw that the American Civil Liberties Union is once again preparing to file a lawsuit against a religion. But let me fill in some of the background to this latest ACLU vs. religion clash. Salt Lake City is the capital of the state of Utah, and it is also the headquarters for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormons. Two neighboring blocks in the city’s downtown area are owned by the Church, and the Church leaders have long wanted to purchase the street running between them to join these two properties. Finally, the city decided to sell that stretch of the road to the LDS Church for over eight million dollars. The Church took this stretch of road, blocked it to vehicular through traffic, and turned it into a beautiful walkway and park that is often used as a backdrop for wedding pictures. So the Main St. Plaza was formed.
The brouhaha started when people disenchanted with the Church and its teachings started protesting or loudly evangelizing in the middle of the plaza. Often these demonstrations or loud preaching coincided with a wedding party attempting to have pictures taken outside the Temple. I wonder how many new brides left in tears because some boor insisted on shoving anti-Mormon literature in her face and railing against the very organization which owned the land he was standing on. Obviously the Church was not too pleased to see the beauty and peace of the plaza shattered by placard-waving protesters.
When I first heard of this issue about a year ago, I didn’t see a conflict. Since the Church owned the property, they had the right to remove people who were harassing others. I figured that was pretty cut and dried–but it wasn’t. The Church owned the property, but the city had failed to sell the easement on that property. Many people are unfamiliar with the nature of an easement. An easement is a public right to pass through or access someone else’s property. In this case, while the Church owned the property, the easement or right for the people to pass through the property was still retained by the city. Once I realized that the Church didn’t own the easement on the Main St. Plaza, then my opinion flipped: while these protesters might be very annoying and often confrontational, they did have the right to be there. The Church tried to prevent protesters from annoying others on the plaza, and the ACLU promptly filed a lawsuit to prevent the Church from restricting the free speech of these people.
Part of the confusion over this issue occurred because the Church believed it had purchased the easement for the property, but a careful examination revealed that while the purchase of the easement had been in the initial City Council minutes and all the plans for the sale, the easement was not included in the final sale for some reason. So after a lengthy court battle and a lost appeal to the District Court, the Church found itself with a nice piece of property and no way to enforce the peace and calm it wanted. After a while, a plan was put forward for the Church to buy the easement by selling some other Church-held properties to the city. After much debate, this idea gained support, was voted on and passed by the Salt Lake City Council. On July 28, 2003, the Church took full control of the Main Street Plaza. People are still free to walk along the plaza and enjoy the pools, flowers, trees and sculptures, but they are no longer permitted to stand and shout at passersby. Having seen and heard the bedlam that existed before, I think this is a very welcome change.
But it is not welcome to everyone. The local chapter of the ACLU, in concert with the First Unitarian Church and others, is once again mustering support for another lawsuit against the city to block the sale of this easement. Cindy King, a member of the First Unitarian Church, said, “I voted for having the church continue on because I believe it’s important that we support our civil liberties and our civil right.” Paul Rice added, “I believe that if our church doesn’t uphold the views of the little guy who wants to speak their opinion on the public easement, then no one would.” Huh? Now that the LDS Church owns the easement as well as the property, there is no longer a debate, regardless of the opinions of the little guy. The Unitarians stated that their decision to support another lawsuit came from their mission statement, which states they believe in “free thought” and a desire to “promote a free and open religious community in Utah.” While both of these are good and laudable goals, neither applies to this now completely privately owned stretch of ground. But common sense doesn’t seem to be in high supply with the people standing against the Church ownership of the easement. ACLU attorney Dani Eyer demonstrated this lack of sense when she said, “We think that when the city council voted to vacate their easement, they did not have proper secular reason for doing that.” They didn’t have a proper secular reason? How about wanting to get this cantankerous issue behind them? How about bringing peace back to the city? How about a chance to purchase some desirable properties for public use? I guess these ideas aren’t secular enough for the ACLU.
So a peaceful and elegant solution has been put forward and accepted–but it is not accepted by everyone. To appreciate fully the irony of this issue, consider another two neighboring blocks in Salt Lake City. These were also owned by the Church, and the city allowed the Church to purchase the street running between them. But in this case, the Church in question is the Roman Catholic Church. The Cathedral of the Madeleine and some associated Church buildings in the adjoining block were separated by the street running between them, so the Roman Catholic Church purchased the street from the city. It is now blocked to vehicular traffic, much like the Main St. Plaza, and it is much safer for people to cross between the two blocks. While I believe in missionary work, I would be just as displeased to see Mormons congregating by the Cathedral shouting and forcing pamphlets into the hands of the passing priests as I am at the people demonstrating at the Main St. Plaza. If the Catholics can purchase a Salt Lake City street, why does the city or the ACLU think it’s wrong for the Mormons to do so?
Addendum: I just heard on the nightly news that the local chapter of the ACLU will file its lawsuit tomorrow against the sale of the easement. The biblical phrase coming to mind is “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”