ACLU Files Main Street Lawsuit

ACLU Files Main Street Lawsuit

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed a federal suit against the Mormon church's control of a downtown block.

The lawsuit, filed by both the national and Utah ACLU, names Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the city, and is asking the court to give control of the block back to the city, which last week signed it over to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The church is not named as a defendant.

Anderson was not immediately available for comment, nor were church spokesmen.

In a prepared statement, Utah ACLU director Dani Eyer accused the city of acquiescing to the demands of the church when it traded away the easement through the downtown block of Main Street rather than maintain it as a public space.

Mark Lopez, an ACLU national staff attorney objected to what he called "governmental favoritism of one religion over all other religious messages."

"When government shows a preference for one religion it sends a chilling message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, and not full members of the community," he said in the written statement.

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 Eyer said the federal court would scrutinize.

"We're asking the court to look at the whole transaction," Eyer said Thursday. "Our argument is that they never should have made the decision to give 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, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU and the plaintiffs it 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 declined last month to take up the case as the two sides proceeded with the compromise plan Anderson introduced in December.

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

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