Court says Mormon Church can't
regulate speech on public access
WASHINGTON (ABP)–The Supreme Court has let stand a lower court's ruling that the Mormon Church may not regulate speech on a Salt Lake City park it owns because of the park's past as a public street.
On June 23, the justices declined, without comment, to hear an appeal from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to the ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In October, a three-judge panel of that court ruled city officials violated the First Amendment by selling a section of a downtown street to the LDS Church for use as a religious park.
Terms of the sale said the area would remain accessible to the public but allowed church officials to regulate speech, such as barring distribution of “anti-Mormon” literature and disallowing sunbathing or other forms of clothing church officials deemed immodest.
The site formerly was a block of Salt Lake City's Main Street that divided the church's main administration complex from the historic Mormon Temple and other religious sites. The city sold the block to the church in 1999. Since then, the church turned the space into a pedestrian plaza featuring religious statues, plants, benches and a reflecting pool.
However, the city retained an easement that allowed the general public pedestrian access to the site after the sale. When city officials and church representatives later drew up the official deed, they added language clarifying that public access did not include making the site a forum for free speech.
But the 10th Circuit panel ruled in October that parts of the plaza that were once city sidewalks remain a “traditional public forum” for speech.
“The purpose of the easement is to provide a pedestrian throughway that is part of the city's transportation grid, and in this respect it is identical to the purpose the sidewalks along that portion of Main Street previously served,” the judges said.
But the Mormon Church said the plaza no longer resembles a city street and therefore is not a public forum. Attorneys for the LDS Church argued, among other things, that allowing the city to control a plaza filled with religious imagery could be viewed as state establishment of religion, which the First Amendment bans.
“A reasonable observer could well perceive a message of endorsement of religion in the city's direct control and regulation of a plaza filled with the religious displays and symbolism of the LDS Church,” according to a motion filed in the case.
Several religious groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the Mormons' claim. They included the Colorado Baptist General Convention, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs.
But some Christian leaders in Utah supported the court's ruling. Southern Baptist minister Kurt Van Gorden has been arrested on the plaza twice by LDS security guards for passing out literature that church officials deemed “anti-Mormon.”