Unitarian church drops lawsuit over Mormon plaza deal

Unitarian church drops lawsuit over Mormon plaza deal

Congregation saw First Amendment liberties at stake, but community saw battling faiths.

Donald E. Skinner


It was never, as some wanted to make it, a battle of religions--one liberal, one conservative, one large, one small.

For a Unitarian church that took the Mormon Church to court, it was always about a higher principle: free speech and the First Amendment. A few people got it. But for most it was easier to think of the legal issues in terms of “us vs. them.”

Six years after it brought suit against city hall and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, has decided not to pursue the case any further.

First Unitarian brought a suit against Salt Lake City in 1999 after the city sold a downtown section of Main Street to the LDS Church, with the city retaining an easement that ensured public access. The church wanted the street for a pedestrian plaza adjacent to its temple, but began tightly controlling activity and expression on the plaza. First Unitarian, partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union, won the suit claiming suppression of speech in 2002 and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision.

When the city gave up the easement in exchange for church-owned real estate where a community center would be built in another part of the city, First Unitarian Church and the ACLU sued again. A federal appeals court upheld the new arrangement, though, and First Unitarian and the ACLU decided there was little chance of success with the Supreme Court. Their right to appeal expired in January.

Continuing the appeal would have underlined divisions in the city and between the two religions, said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of First Unitarian Church.

He said he continues to be proud of the position the church took. In hindsight he wishes he’d had more success in carrying his message to the public. Too often, he said, reporters found it easier to report the story as a clash between two religions rather than as a constitutional issue—separation of church and state. Goldsmith said his stated respect for the LDS faith sometimes came through in news reports, but not often enough.

Goldsmith wrote a column in the church newsletter recently about the struggle. “Many in our community opted for a simplistic view that Unitarians were antagonistic towards Mormons,” he said, including two Mormon musicians who had been participating in First Unitarian’s weekly Jazz Vespers service. Both dropped out, he said, and neither would discuss the issue with him.

But when Goldsmith had opportunities to sit down with individual students from local universities who were researching the controversy, the conversations were always productive and civil. “They appreciated the legal distinctions in the case,” he wrote, “and it soon became transparently obvious to every one of them that Unitarians were not the enemy of the LDS faith.”

One troublesome and unexpected aspect of the controversy was that street preachers, many from California, used it as an opportunity to come to Salt Lake City and “spew their hatred and vile comments against Mormons,” Goldsmith said in his column. “It made it seem that we were protecting the right of some nutcases to air their hatred on the Main Street Plaza. I guess, tragically, we were.”

The congregation is ready to move on, Goldsmith believes. “With the legal case settled,” he said in an interview, “we can once again concentrate on building bridges in the community.” Unitarians continue to work with LDS members in underserved schools on the West Side, and Goldsmith plans to remain active in the city’s Interfaith Roundtable. “The LDS leaders and I work collaboratively in this organization with mutual respect,” he said.

Nonetheless, Goldsmith said, “I have complete faith that if faced with a similar situation in the future, our congregation will again vote to pursue whatever avenue necessary to protect the separation of church and state.”

Goldsmith concluded his newsletter column with a quote from theologian William Sloane Coffin: “Diversity may be both the hardest thing to live with and the most dangerous thing to be without.”

“If everyone took that to heart,” Goldsmith said, “we’d all be better off.”

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Correction 1.30.06: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story included two versions this paragraph; the redundant paragraph has been deleted.