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For week ended November 21, 1999 Posted 24 Feb 2001

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Lawsuit may allow protest on LDS Church-owned plaza (Lawsuit on block appears complex)

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Lawsuit may allow protest on LDS Church-owned plaza (Lawsuit on block appears complex)
Deseret News 17Nov99 N1
By Alan Edwards: Deseret News staff writer

The lawsuit filed by the ACLU monday against Salt Lake City over the sale of a one-block section of Main Street to the LDS Church has a wrinkle that may affect how the Church can use the area. Since the sale document contains a "severability clause," the Church could end up with the block, but not be able to enforce rules against demonstrators in the area, if the ACLU wins the lawsuit.

The severability clause says that if any of the terms of the agreement are "unconstitutional or otherwise unenforceable" the rest of the agreement is still valid. The ACLU claims that the restrictions on demonstrators agreed to by the city along with the sale are an unconstitutional violation of the U.S. Constitution's free speech provision.

The validity of the lawsuit may also be questioned because the ACLU didn't include the LDS Church in its claim. "I don't think it can go forward without them," said Salt Lake City Attorney Roger Cutler. He thinks that the judge could dismiss the lawsuit if the Church isn't involved. Or, the Church may intervene to defend the restrictions, "One way or the other, the church is going to be involved," he said.

But Church spokesman Dale Bills says that won't necessarily happen, "We are not a party to the suit and have no current plans to intervene," he said. "We will, of course, closely follow developments as they unfold."

The ACLU is representing three groups that have used the block as a place to protest, The First Unitarian Church, Utahns for Fairness and the Utah chapter of the National Organization for Women.

ACLU attorney Stephen Clark says that the city's deal violates the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. "Streets and sidewalks are the quintessential place where people can take their soapboxes and be heard," he said. "You can't change the street's public-forum status simply by changing its owner." Utah NOW President Luci Malin says that the block is simply the best place to voice dissent in Salt Lake City, "It's a traditional place in Salt Lake City to voice dissent with the prevailing powers. And it's sort of an ideal location to protest the church's involvement in politics. I would have to think twice about where we would do something now."

But Church spokesman Bills disagrees, "All legal requirements, including those set forth in the U.S. Constitution, were satisfied before the property was transferred. We are confident that the court will determine that this suit is without merit."

Newly-elected Mayor Rocky Anderson prefers to try and settle the lawsuit, rather than have it drag on in the courts, "There is no way in my administration that the city will abandon any claim to public access. At the same time, there is no way the city should ever be in the position of having to buy back or pay significant damages because the LDS Church didn't get the bargain that was assured," said Anderson.

See also:

Suit Crashes LDS Block Party
Salt Lake Tribune 17Nov99 N1
By Rebecca Walsh: Salt Lake Tribune

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information