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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A federal judge was expected to rule this week on whether the American Civil Liberties Union can question Mayor Rocky Anderson, billionaire Jon M. Huntsman and Mormon church Presiding Bishop H. David Burton in connection with a Main Street plaza lawsuit.
Friday, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball Kimball heard the ACLU's request to interview the three men for their legal motions designed to re-establish free speech on the plaza.
Those interviews would seek to show what the ACLU contends is the underlying reason behind the community center deal Anderson last December offered to solve the Main Street plaza dilemma. That underlying reason, ACLU attorney Mark Lopez said Friday, is that Anderson wanted to give up the city's plaza easement to appease The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We're still trying to figure out why the mayor totally walked away (from protecting the easement)," Lopez said.
The ACLU contends that Anderson, Huntsman and Burton, or other members of the Mormon church hierarchy, conspired behind the scenes to craft Anderson's July deal to give up the easement for church-owned land and money for a community center expansion on the city's west side, Lopez said.
The back-room dealing, Lopez said, favored the church and thus violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits too much religious involvement in government.
Chief Deputy City Attorney Steven Allred said Huntsman and Anderson should be protected from being interviewed, since, in many cases, chief executives and their officers, including citizen advisers, are protected from court-ordered interviews.
Allred said the ordinance that the City Council passed to ratify Anderson's community center deal included secular benefits: a $5 million community center in Glendale and reimbursement of half the legal fees the city owed the ACLU after the first Main Street plaza suit, which ended up in a federal appellate court.
Church attorney Alan Sullivan similarly argued against allowing interviews of church leaders.
Lopez said he wouldn't need the interviews if the city and church would agree that newspaper accounts detailing the plaza fray and eventual deal were accurate.
The two sides agreed to a meeting next week about the newspaper reports. If the sides can't agree and Kimball doesn't grant the interviews, Lopez said he might seek to interview reporters from the Deseret Morning News and The Salt Lake Tribune.
The judge has scheduled a hearing on Jan. 26 for the ACLU's motion to restore free speech on the plaza until the lawsuit is resolved. At that hearing, lawyers also will argue the city and church motions to dismiss the lawsuit.
The legal actions center on the plaintiffs' claims that the city capitulated to the church when it traded away guaranteed public access through a block of Main Street. The lawsuit's plaintiffs are the Utah Gospel Mission, the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, a pro-nuclear disarmament group, the Utah chapter of the National Organization for Women and two individuals, all represented by the ACLU.
The plaza dispute began in April 1999, when the church paid the city $8.1 million for one block of Main Street adjacent to the church's temple. The block, which is now a landscaped pedestrian plaza, formerly was a main traffic artery into and out of the city's downtown.
The church agreed to the city's demand for public access to the block, but demanded in turn that the church be allowed to govern behavior and dress on the plaza.
The ACLU of Utah sued, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.
On October 9, 2002, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU and the plaintiffs it then represented. The city, not the church, was responsible for maintaining order on the 660-foot easement through the plaza, the court ruled.
The decision also said that one solution to the dilemma would be to sell the easement, but didn't say how that might be done constitutionally.
City and church leaders hoped the land swap would put an end to the controversy over the sale former mayor Deedee Corradini executed with the church.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to take up the case as the two sides proceeded with Anderson's compromise plan.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)