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SLC Council Hears Main Street Plaza Issue

SLC Council Hears Main Street Plaza Issue

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The Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday night heard Mayor Rocky Anderson's proposal to give up First Amendment rights on the public easement through the Mormon church-owned Main Street plaza in exchange for an expanded community center elsewhere in the city, but took no action.

Despite the proposal's listing on the council's agenda as a possible action item, "we weren't contemplating any action tonight," said council chairman Dave Buhler. "Hopefully, in January we'll come to grips with this," he said, adding that the council needed more details regarding the new proposal.

Buhler said that another possibility would be to wait and see what becomes of the church's promised appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that set off the current two-month battle.

Anderson's proposal would extinguish the easement in exchange for 2.17 acres of church-owned land in Glendale, a neighborhood on the city's less-affluent west side. The land would be used for a community center and other youth programs.

Developer James Sorenson has pledged $1 million to build it near the existing Sorenson Center. The Huntsman and Eccles families, prominent Utah philanthropists, offered an additional $500,000 each.

The proposal was Anderson's latest effort to resolve the Main Street plaza dispute, which has grown increasingly acrimonious since the appeals court on Oct. 9 affirmed the city's right to regulate behavior on the sidewalk easement through the land it sold to the church for $8.1 million in 1999.

Citizens gave their opinions to the council for three hours, with most of them supporting the land swap or some other method of giving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what the church says it originally bargained for: the right to control behavior on the former Main Street sidewalks.

Some speakers had nothing but praise for the proposed land swap. Others said it was a strange solution at best and a prostitution of the First Amendment at worst. Many decried the religious and civic divisiveness the plaza issue has caused and pleaded for a solution.

"You've been demonized and vilified and I don't think you deserve it," city resident Richard Barnes. "I just pray we can have a peaceful resolution. This city deserves better than the civil war we've been fighting the last two months."

More than half -- 58 percent -- of Wasatch Front residents say the plaza issue has affected relations between Mormons and non-Mormons, according to a poll conducted last week for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Salt Lake resident Maureen Frikke said that while she favored expansion of the Sorenson Center, she objected to the suggestion that trading Glendale land for a public easement across the plaza was equitable.

"Whether we can speak on the Main Street plaza is totally irrelevant," she said. "If the east side wants something, are you going to sell First Amendment rights somewhere else in the city?"

The council also heard threats from evangelical Christian "banner people" -- those whose bellicose protests on public sidewalks during Mormon general conferences in April and October have spread to the plaza. They vowed to create more problems for Anderson and the church should the easement be abandoned.

"If Main Street is taken away ... I will make this noise nationwide and come April there will be a whole lot of people just like us (there)," said Rupen Israel.

"My attorneys are waiting," warned street evangelist Ronnie Pursifull.

Earlier Tuesday there was a brief confrontation between street preachers on the plaza and members of wedding party.

The demonstrators were carrying placards and some used bullhorns. Some people asked them to move away so wedding parties could take pictures with the temple behind them. They refused to move.

The plaza dispute arose after the church imposed rules restricting protests, demonstrations and other activities on a 660-foot stretch of former Main Street sidewalks from North Temple to South Temple streets.

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."

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.

After some hedging, Anderson on Oct. 21 announced he would not disturb the public easement. On Dec. 6, he proposed dozens of "time, place and manner" rules that require as few as two demonstrators to get a city permit to claim a spot inside a pair of five-by-24 foot "protest zones" on far corners of the plaza.

But the church rejected Anderson's proposal before he could even make it, preferring a plaza of "peace and serenity" without any protests, regulated or not. Church attorney Alan Sullivan on

Tuesday said the protest zones would be "protest magnets."

Buhler said the time, place and manner proposed still remain on the table. Anderson said he favors the new proposal instead.

Dani Eyer, director of the Utah ACLU, said that while legal action against the new plan remains a possibility, more legal research would be necessary before proceeding.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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