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Do Mormon Rules Have a Place in Plaza?

Court battle rages over a Salt Lake temple area where the church has imposed restrictions.

November 23, 2002|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — Just outside the wrought-iron gates of the historic temple here, a Baptist preacher from Southern California politely hands out leaflets urging passersby to give up the Mormon faith. "Don't count your temple tradition greater than Jesus ... repent your sins," reads the text.

It's not easy work. Kurt Van Gorden's attempts to convert members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his kind of Christianity in the shadow of its holiest site is met with stony silence and glares. He is often photographed by church security guards. And last spring, his efforts in Main Street Plaza -- owned by the church but with public walkways running through it -- even landed him in jail for an afternoon, though no charges were filed.

"I'm sure I'm a pain to the Mormon Church," said the Victorville resident, who says he makes the 1,200-mile round trip to Salt Lake City about once a month to follow his calling to save Mormons. "But do they see how much of a pain they are to the Constitution and American citizens?"

Van Gorden is one of many who have defied attempts by church leaders to regulate behavior in Main Street Plaza, a block of Main Street that the city sold to the church in 1999 for $8.1 million. Others include civil liberties activists and ordinary residents fed up with what they perceive as Mormon domination.

The debate has escalated into a lawsuit, now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, that asks: Is the park a private place where visitors should act like guests of the church? Or do the public walkways allow for free, even offensive, speech in the shadows of the granite temple built by Brigham Young and other Mormon pioneers?

The case also has created an unlikely group of national allies for the church, organizations as diverse as the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs and the National League of Cities, which are worried that an adverse ruling could wipe out the notion of limited easements that allow public access to beaches, mountain trails and other places.

But it's more than a debate over civil liberties. In some ways this also is a dialogue over the soul of this city. Though Mormons predominate in Utah, and the church is by far the city's most powerful institution, less than half of Salt Lake residents belong to the church. While all seven City Council members are Mormons, the city's powerful mayor is often critical of the church.

The idea to turn a block of Main Street into a pedestrian plaza was first proposed 40 years ago as part of a downtown revitalization plan. The city agreed in 1999 to sell the narrow slice of property running along the front of Temple Square to the church, which then spent more than $10 million creating an oasis of serenity with brick walkways, fountains, a reflecting pool, trees and flowers.

The idea was to create a strip of parkland that would unite Temple Square and the church's administrative buildings across Main Street. In an effort to accommodate the public, however, city officials struck a deal with the church: The sale agreement called for a restricted public easement that allows pedestrians in the park at any hour but under strict rules.

The agreement gave church security officers power to decide who was violating the rules. They could bar, for example, non-Mormon groups holding protests or distributing literature, women wearing halter tops and men without shirts. One newspaper columnist reported a microbrewery worker being escorted from the plaza for wearing a shirt that read: "We support 3.2% tithing and 10% beer."

Though the proposal for Main Street Plaza was discussed in numerous public hearings and community meetings, news of the completed deal in 1999 shocked many in town, said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the 500-family First Unitarian Church. Soon afterward, his church became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city contending the deal improperly gave away public rights. The Mormon Church joined in the defense.

Meanwhile, work proceeded on the park and the faithful and protesters alike flocked to the plaza when it opened in the fall of 2000. On most days, a seemingly endless stream of young brides in white gowns poses for photos in front of the plaza's reflecting pool, with the temple's 210-foot-high spires soaring in the background.

But the religious atmosphere is sometimes interrupted by shouts from protesters in the plaza, just a few yards from the temple's front door.

"It's always heckling," said Donna Busath, a Salt Lake City resident who recently spoke before the City Council. "It's totally disrespectful. No cultured person would go outside the gates of someone's sacred building and do that."

But Mormon critics argue that the church sends out an estimated 65,000 missionaries each year to proselytize on private property that many consider sacred: people's homes.

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