SALT LAKE CITY — A Christian church that says it was prohibited from passing out fliers on public sidewalks bordering the new LDS temple in Brigham City filed a federal lawsuit against the city Tuesday.
The Main Street Church of Brigham City planned to distribute literature during the Brigham City Temple open house, which began Aug. 18 and ends Sept. 15. It obtained a permit under the city's free speech zone ordinance on Aug. 20 but says it was barred from the two most trafficked sides of the temple.
"If Main Street Church were to access those sidewalks during the open house, we would not impede the flow of pedestrian traffic, nor would we attempt to force anyone to take any of our literature," said Jim Catlin, pastor of the Main Street Church, formerly the Living Hope Christian Fellowship.
The issue of public safety
Kirk Morgan, Brigham City's attorney, said the free speech zones were designated in part for purposes of public safety. He said the Main Street Church has been upset that its representatives have not been allowed access to the bus unloading zone on the west side of the property.
"The issue is one of public safety, not of limiting anyone's free speech," Morgan said.
Roughly 18,000 people per day have been visiting the temple during the open house period, many of them arriving on buses shuttling them from nearby parking lots, he said. Those people are dropped off next to the sidewalk directly in front of an entrance to temple property.
"We have a huge traffic issue in that area," Morgan said. "We're concerned with pedestrian as well as traffic safety there. We're prohibiting (people from handing out materials) in that area due to those concerns.
"We even would discourage the LDS Church or any other individual from handing out pamphlets in that area," he said.
Morgan is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with Brigham City Police Chief Paul Tittensor and city administrator Bruce Leonard. Messages left for Tittensor and Leonard on Tuesday were not returned.
The right to free speech
Catlin said the Main Street Church opposes hate speech and tactics some groups have used to badger, mistreat and disrespect Mormons. But, he said, church members have a right to express their beliefs on public sidewalks.
Some of the literature points out differences in beliefs between the Main Street Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Main Street Church describes itself as Bible-based and nondenominational.
Morgan said he believes it's unfair to characterize the city's action as a ban on free speech.
"They have access all over that property to be seen and heard," he said. "They have not been banned by any means. They've been there every day. … We have other protestors there who have been abiding by the free speech zones almost every day, too."
The LDS Church is scheduled to dedicate the temple Sept. 23.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court by the ACLU of Utah on behalf of the Main Street Church challenges Brigham City's free speech zone ordinance. It contends the law violates the Utah and U.S. constitutions because it requires a permit for almost any form of public expression and imposes civil and criminal penalties for failing to obtain one.
The Main Street Church is also seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from restricting the church from passing out its literature.
John Mejia, ACLU legal director, said the law is "breathtaking" in its overreach.
"Under this ordinance, you would arguably have to apply for a permit to engage in nearly any speech in the city," he said. "The ordinance could be used to silence anyone, from two friends debating politics on the sidewalk to a missionary handing out fliers."
Under the ordinance, the city's police chief, attorney and administrator have the discretion of how, when and why to establish free speech zones. According to the ACLU, they have taken it upon themselves to limit the nature of what the activities will include and how many people may be involved.
Contributing: Jared Page