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10th Circuit Ruling rejects ACLU Claims

10th Circuit Ruling rejects ACLU Claims

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the controversial sale of Salt Lake City's Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which turned a section of the former street into a religious park.

Judges said the plaza, as the area between church offices and the faith's temple is known, is private property and the sale was not an endorsement of the church by city leaders.

"Looked at objectively, the ... case is one of neutrality and equal access, in which the city does nothing to advance religion, but merely enables the LDS church to advance itself," the court wrote.

The ruling rejects the claim of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that the street should remain a public sidewalk where free speech is allowed.

The city initially sold the one-block section of Main Street to the Mormon church in 1999 for just over $8 million. In that sale, the city reserved a public-access easement, but gave the church the right to block on-plaza protests, proselytizing and other behaviors.

The ACLU and other plaintiffs sued, contending the church could not curtail free speech or other First Amendment rights in a public easement. In a 2002 ruling, the 10th Circuit upheld the ACLU's claim.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson originally supported the ACLU, but later brokered a deal with church leaders to trade the easement for $4.5 million in property on the city's west side to build a community center, which is not yet open.

ACLU attorneys then sued both the church and the city, saying that political pressure from the church forced Anderson into a dealt that violates constitutional provisions against government favoring one religion over another.

The city's secular gains of a community center were a "facade" protecting the Mormon church from critics, the lawsuit said.

In its ruling the court said that in giving up the easement, the city gained roughly 10 times its market value and rightfully disengaged itself from a potential constitutional entanglement with the church over control of the plaza.

Judges also said that traditional public forums can, in fact, be sold to private groups and no longer continue to be public forums.

"The fact that the mayor changed his mind by first vocally opposing the sale of the easement and later supporting it, or that this issue was controversial, simply does not support the claim that the transaction was a sham," the judges said. "The city simply does not own the plaza."

Practically, Monday's decision changes little.

The church has controlled the property since 2003 and manages it like its other properties, allowing visitors but restricting behavior offensive to church members.

Both Anderson and church spokesman Bruce Olsen said they were pleased with the court's ruling.

"The church has always intended that the plaza be a place of peace, a quiet oasis in the midst of a bustling city where everyone can enjoy an atmosphere of serenity and reflection," Olsen said.

The ACLU could appeal, although that decision must be made by the local board of directors in concert with the organization's national office in New York City, whose attorneys handled arguments in the case, local executive director Dani Eyer said.

Eyer was disappointed by the court's ruling, but other plaintiffs in the case said they were glad to have the issue resolved.

"I thought this was going to last forever," said Andrea Moore-Emmett, president of the Utah chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). "It's nice to have it resolved and move on from there."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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