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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can join the federal government's defense against a lawsuit protesting the lease of a historic site to the church, a federal judge has ruled.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in March in U.S. District Court, naming Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Bureau of Land Management Director Kathleen Clarke.
The ACLU argues the lease agreement unfairly gives the Mormon church too much control over the Martin's Cove site, which is about 60 miles southwest of Casper, and that visitors are subjected to proselytizing or restricted from some areas if they're not Mormon.
U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson on Tuesday granted the church's motion to join the lawsuit.
The church says it is doing a public service by maintaining and preserving the site and saving the BLM the expense of doing so. It contends that while a visitors center on church-owned property near the cove does contain information about the Mormon church, visitors are not forced to go there.
Martin's Cove, which is on BLM land, is the site along the historic Mormon trail where a group of LDS handcart pioneers took refuge in 1856 after they were caught in a fierce snowstorm on their journey to Salt Lake City. More than 100 died in the storm.
The ACLU's lawsuit asks that the lease be terminated and that future leases to the church be prohibited.
Congress authorized the lease in 2003. It gives the church control over the 933-acre area for 25 years, in exchange for annual payments of $16,000, and authorized right of first refusal for renewing the lease.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)