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Suit Says Land Swap Favored Mormons

August 08, 2003|From Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging a land swap deal that gives the Mormon church the right to regulate behavior on a disputed downtown pedestrian plaza.

The lawsuit, filed by both the national and Utah ACLU, names Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the city, and asks the court to return control of the Main Street plaza block 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 but is considering intervening in the case, said church attorney Alan Sullivan.

Citing the 1st and 14th amendments of the Constitution, the complaint accuses the city of illegally capitulating to the church when it traded away the easement through the block of Main Street rather than maintain it as a public space.

The 1st Amendment guarantees citizens the right to free speech and assembly; the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection of the law to all citizens.

ACLU attorneys say the deal was an attempt to sidestep an appeals court ruling last fall that said keeping the easement, an integral part of the block's original sale, meant the city had to ensure 1st Amendment rights.

The 46-page lawsuit contends the city's land-swap sale of the public easement was primarily motivated by religious considerations that endorsed the Mormon religion and sent the message that the city favors one religion over another.

"The city's actions are directly attributable to what the mayor of Salt Lake City himself describes as the 'extraordinary pressure' brought by the LDS Church," the lawsuit argues.

Anderson on Thursday denied the lawsuit's claims and said the ACLU's legal theories were "very strange indeed." He declined to elaborate, saying he couldn't comment on city litigation because it might reveal defense strategy.

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, now a landscaped pedestrian plaza, formerly was a main traffic gateway to the city's downtown.

In that deal, the church agreed that the city would retain a sidewalk easement through 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 Utah ACLU sued, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.

Last October, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU, saying the 660-foot-long easement through the plaza carried 1st Amendment rights.

The ruling also offered an alternative to the dilemma: Sell the easement. The court didn't say how that might be done constitutionally.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to review the case.

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