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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to block the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from leasing to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a site where more than 100 Mormon handcart pioneers died.
In the suit filed Wednesday, the ACLU said the government had converted Martin's Cove in central Wyoming into a religious site and given the church authority to place unconstitutional restrictions on visitors.
"It's a violation of the First Amendment, and specifically it entangles church and state because the government has entered into a partnership with the LDS church," said Mark Lopez, an ACLU attorney in New York.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne.
The church in October signed a 25-year lease with the BLM at $16,000 a year, giving the church oversight of about 11/2 square miles of prairie and pink granite cliffs.
A company of Mormon pioneers, mostly poor European converts, was trapped there in October 1856 by an early snowstorm as they neared the end of a 1,300-mile trek to Utah.
Too poor to buy livestock to haul wagons, they were pulling handcarts piled with children and possessions. They sought shelter in the cove, where many died. Rescuers from Salt Lake City wrapped the dead in blankets and buried them under piles of rock.
Lopez said the pioneer trails through the area had significance with regard to all who traveled West, not just Mormons. "I don't think anyone would approve if Congress had, for instance, put Ellis Island out on lease to a particular religious organization and allowed them to act as stewards of that property," he said.
Lloyd Larsen, a Wyoming official for the LDS Church, said church officials had been satisfied with how the lease had been written and implemented; Congress approved the lease in 2003, and President Bush signed the bill later that year.
"It sounds to me like there's a few things there the legal minds are going to have to debate and figure out," Larsen said. He declined further comment without seeing the lawsuit.
The suit was filed on behalf of four Wyoming residents and the Western Land Exchange Project, which advocates public access to decisions about federal land. The defendants are Interior Secretary Gale Norton and BLM Director Kathleen Clarke.
One plaintiff, Susan Wozny, of Laramie, claimed that when she visited Martin's Cove, LDS guides repeatedly asked her about her religious affiliation and prevented her from accessing part of the trail, saying it was "sacred" and "hallowed ground."
Another plaintiff, William Young, of Medicine Bow, is a Quaker and former chairman of the ACLU of Wyoming's board of directors. Young said the federal government had singled out the LDS Church for special treatment while excluding others, according to the ACLU.
The other two plaintiffs, Jennifer Sorensen and Kevin Holdsworth, of Green River, are husband-and-wife professors at Western Wyoming Community College. Holdsworth, a descendant of Mormon pioneers, said he didn't want the federal land to be used for "proselytizing purposes."
The Mormon church originally wanted to buy 1,640 acres of land at Martin's Cove, but public opposition to that idea led to the lease compromise.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)