Court sides with Unitarian defense of free speech on city block purchased by LDS Church.
The Mormon church paid the city $8.1 million in 1999 for the area, which was a public street adjacent to the church's Temple Square. It then closed the street to create the plaza and began barring "unacceptable" behavior on it, including wearing t-shirts bearing messages it disapproves of, same-sex displays of affection, smoking, and promoting other religions.
First Unitarian originally sued the city, charging free speech violations; the city had kept a public access easement. When the LDS church asked to represent itself it became the defendant. First Unitarian, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully appealed the restrictions last year to a panel of the US. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in Denver. The court panel ruled that the public access easement created a free speech area similar to that of public sidewalks.
The court suggested that one remedy might be for the city to give the easement to the church. Late last year Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson proposed a swap, whereby the church would be given the easement in exchange for two acres on Salt Lake's West Side that the city would use for a facility to offer free legal, business, and medical advice for children and adults in need.
Until the mayor's offer is resolved, the ACLU will not say whether it will challenge it.
Since the court rebuffed the LDS church, many non-Mormon evangelists and others have been using the plaza to promote their views.
The Rev. Tom Goldsmith of First Unitarian said he has received more than 100 "really nasty" e-mails and harassing calls. "I've tried to answer all the e-mails, telling people that it's not a religious question of one church against another, but one of First Amendment rights."
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.