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Council Approves Main St. Deal

Council Approves Main St. Deal

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The City Council has approved Mayor Rocky Anderson's plan to give up the city's easement -- and the accompanying public free-speech rights -- through the church-owned downtown plaza in exchange for a community center in a low-income area.

Some opponents vowed to challenge the deal in court and others were considering it.

The swap would allow The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to control access and behavior on the downtown block of Main Street it purchased from the city and turned into a plaza adjacent to its Temple Square.

The council voted 6-0 in favor of the deal, with Nancy Saxton, a critic of the exchange, abstaining. The council members are all Mormon, although Saxton has said she is inactive.

Council member Dave Buhler said the swap was the most legally defensible solution to the dispute and minimizes the risk of prolonged litigation.

Following the council meeting Tuesday night, Anderson said it was possible the American Civil Liberties Union would sue, but to do so "would really mean pushing the envelope."

The organization is weighing its next move.

"We'll think about everything they said. I was listening hard for a secular reason for accommodating the church," said Dani Eyer, executive director of the ACLU's Utah chapter.

The organization wrote the council last week in opposition to the proposal.

Stephen C. Clark of the ACLU said the city should retain the easement, which he said was a critical element of the city's agreement to sell the block.

He said that without it, people using the plaza would be subject to arbitrary arrest for expressing a viewpoint that varies from some unwritten, unknowable, sectarian standard.

The plaza dispute started in 1999 when then-Mayor Deedee Corradini and church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the sale of one block of Main Street to the church for $8.1 million.

The deal included a public easement, allowing people to pass through the plaza. It also allowed the church to prohibit smoking, sunbathing, bicycling, obscene or vulgar speech, dress or conduct on the plaza. It also allowed the church to ban any preaching or proselytizing that it did not approve of.

The ACLU, representing the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, sued, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 9 ruled that as long as the easement existed, the city had to uphold free-speech rights on the public sidewalks through the plaza.

That has meant visitors have been subjected to anti-Mormon harangues by street preachers, some of whom vowed to go to court if the mayor's plan were adopted.

The church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has not indicated whether it will hear the appeal.

After first saying he'd abide by the 10th Circuit ruling, Anderson, who is running for re-election this fall, proposed in December that the city give up control of the easement, which the 10th Circuit said was possible. In exchange, the church would give the city two acres of its land in Glendale for a community center. More that $5 million has been raised through donations for the project.

Lonnie Pursifull, one of the street preachers, told the City Council Tuesday night that he would seek an injunction and that "the fight's just going to begin."

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Church said his congregation will meet in about two weeks to decide whether to sue.

If opponents do not obtain a restraining order, the easement will be vacated after a 35-day grace period following recording of the new ordinance, which was likely Wednesday.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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