WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court declined Monday to hear arguments on whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be allowed to limit speech it deems offensive in a park it purchased from Salt Lake City.
The court's decision lets stand an October ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said because the church had guaranteed the city pedestrian access through the park at the time of the purchase, free-speech rights along the sidewalks through the plaza must be retained.
However, the court's decision is now in doubt. Two weeks ago, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson struck a deal with the church, approved by the City Council two weeks ago, that surrenders the city's pedestrian easement through the plaza -- a move the appeals court suggested would give the church authority to restrict speech.
"Unfortunately it doesn't signal the end of the case because Salt Lake City has done the unimaginable and surrendered all its interest, completely abandoned the public interest in this right of way in this very central stretch of Main Street," said Mark Lopez, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the church. "Now there's going to be another fight over that issue."
Anderson, referring to "so-called civil libertarians from out of state," said Lopez and the ACLU were going "absolutely the wrong direction" with threats of further lawsuits that would only result in more restrictions on property. The mayor is a member of the Utah ACLU and a civil liberties attorney.
"Believe me, if I thought the church wasn't going to allow access, I wouldn't do this," Anderson said Monday.
The plaza dispute began in April 1999, when the Mormon church paid the city $8.1 million for one block of Main Street adjacent to the church's temple.
The church agreed to the city's demands of public access to the block, but demanded that church officials be allowed to restrict smoking, sunbathing, bicycling, "obscene" or "vulgar" speech, dress or conduct on the plaza.
The ACLU and First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City sued, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.
A federal judge sided with the church, but the appeals court overturned that ruling in October, ruling that the city couldn't create a "First Amendment-free zone."
The Supreme Court announced its decision without comment Monday.
"The court denied our application for them to take the case. Obviously, that's disappointing. But it's also not too surprising," church attorney Von Keetch said. "The court takes so few cases, getting on the docket is difficult."
Just because the court didn't take up the appeal doesn't mean it agrees with the appeals court decision on what happens to public property sold to a private entity, Anderson said. "I hope that at some time they will give better guidance for municipalities."
The dispute widened a chasm that exists between the city's dominant Mormon population, and non-Mormons who complain of being forced to live by the church's precepts.
Anderson said the original contract between the city and the church "was a recipe for huge divisiveness in the community." Indeed, it included mutually exclusive provisions: guaranteed public sidewalk access while allowing the church to make the rules.
After first saying he'd abide by the appeals court ruling, Anderson -- who's running for re-election this fall -- proposed giving up city control of the easement through the park. In exchange, the church would give the city two acres of land in Glendale, a neighborhood west of downtown, for a community center.
Earlier this month, the all-Mormon city council voted 6-0 with one abstention to approve the deal.
A group called Alliance for Unity pledged $4 million to the Glendale project. Philanthropist James Sorenson pledged $1 million, and the church said it would donate $275,000 to the alliance.
On the city's Web site, Anderson advanced his land-exchange idea, which he called "The Turning Point for Peace Proposal." Without such a resolution, he said, "the Plaza will serve as a constant wedge between members of our community."
The church didn't withdraw its request for appeal after the council's action.
"The church wanted to keep both options open. Even now, the deal hasn't closed yet, and won't close for another 30 days," Keetch said. "We thought this problem was best solved at a local level."
But the four-year legal battle likely will continue. Lopez said the ACLU will likely sue again to stop the deal.
"We think everything they did here was a sidestep around the court of appeals decision to advance the interest of the church and against the speakers with whom the church disagrees," Lopez said.
Keetch said the church would meet the ACLU in any future challenge.
"If the ACLU sues again, the church will be there to defend its property rights," he said.
Anderson said that in any event, the community center would be built. "The money has been pledged despite any lawsuit," he said.
If opponents do not obtain a restraining order, the easement will disappear in mid-July.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)