LDS Church Wants Piece of ACLU Main Street Lawsuit

LDS Church Wants Piece of ACLU Main Street Lawsuit

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon church on Wednesday filed motions in federal court to have the Main Street plaza lawsuit challenging a church-city land swap dismissed and to intervene in the case as a defendant should it proceed.

City Attorney Steven Allred on Wednesday also filed a motion to dismiss the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in August.

Also on Wednesday, New York City-based ACLU national staff attorney Mark Lopez said the organization would file ask for a federal preliminary injunction that would allow people to exercise their First Amendment rights on the plaza. He expected that to be filed Friday.

The church's motion to dismiss says the city received "ample" payment for the Main Street plaza pedestrian easement, and that because its reasons for selling the parcel were secular, there was no inherent endorsement of religion.

The motion to intervene in the lawsuit claims the church, as owner of the disputed property, has a direct interest in the outcome of the case, and that the city "cannot be expected adequately to defend the church's rights."

No church attorneys were available Wednesday for comment.

Allred said that while the city didn't work directly with the church in its newest legal actions, it expected the request for intervention. The church did the same thing with a different plaza lawsuit filed in 1999.

"We may have different approaches to defending our interests," Allred said. "We used to have very different interests, but that's what the settlement was all about."

Lopez, too, agreed the motion to intervene was to be expected.

"The church has a lot at stake here," he said. "Our fight is with the city for what they did. I don't want to take shots at the church if I don't have to. For all I know, the church comes to this process with totally clean hands. It's the city's actions that have put all this in play."

The concurrent 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 for church-owned land elsewhere in the city plus $5 million for a community center expansion.

The August lawsuit, filed by both the national and Utah ACLU, asked the court to return control of the Main Street block to the city. The lawsuit named Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the city but not the church. The ACLU has since agreed to drop Anderson as a defendant.

On July 28, the city and the church closed a deal that traded two acres of church-owned land and $388,000 in church funds for the disputed Main Street easement.

A local philanthropist and a group dedicated to easing religious conflict in Utah promised the rest of the $5 million that would go to building a community center in the neighborhood. That promise was an integral part of the complex exchange, which the ACLU wants Kimball to scrutinize, arguing that the city never should have given up the downtown easement.

The suit'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.

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 restrict smoking, sunbathing, bicycling, "obscene" or "vulgar" speech, dress or conduct on the plaza.

The American Civil Liberties Union 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 church-city deal made under former mayor Deedee Corradini.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to take up the case as the two sides proceeded with the compromise plan Anderson introduced in December.

The ongoing contention over the plaza was a major issue in Anderson's campaign for re-election, which he won Tuesday. Mayoral challengers Frank Pignanelli and Molonai Hola both capitalized on the discontent by characterizing Anderson's responses to the 10th Circuit ruling as "divisive," that is, a wedge in the perpetual conflict between Mormons and other residents of the city and state.

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

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