SALT LAKE CITY – While spending the weekend here watching our football team pull out another nail-biting victory over the University of Utah, I got the chance to see a religious controversy take shape.
The city is a place of obvious natural beauty but of subtle social controversy.
After driving from Fort Collins through the desolate southern Wyoming landscape, the surroundings around Salt Lake look like eye candy. This gorgeous city is nestled in a valley west of the Wasatch Mountains. The Great Salt Lake looks like a distant sea north of the city. The Utah state capitol building is perched on a hill above the downtown with its green dome looming over the skyline.
A hot debate currently consuming Salt Lake is a sale of city land called the Main Street Plaza for $8.1 million to the Church of Later-day Saints. This area is downtown near the Mormon Temple. Mayor Rocky Anderson approved the sale initially in 1999, but has since come under fire by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU won a recent lawsuit in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver claiming the Church’s free speech and behavior restrictions on the land were unconstitutional. The legality of the sale of the city’s land was even questioned by the courts.
Now the plaza is in limbo. It is not considered by the church as exclusive public property, yet it is open to the public and you might walk through it without realizing the restrictions that have been adapted there. The church’s restrictions include bans on distributing literature, picketing, proselytizing by other religions and any “offensive, indecent, obscene, vulgar, lewd or disorderly” speech, conduct or dress.
Doesn’t this definition sound kind of vague?
Many other cities nationwide share the LDS Church’s restrictions on smoking, drinking alcohol, disturbing the peace, sunbathing or erecting signs in places with public access. Although as a resident or visitor of Salt Lake shouldn’t I have the right to walk through someplace like the plaza while drinking a coffee and listening to Eminem lyrics on a Walkman, things that an LDS member might be offended by?
On Friday, leaders of the ACLU wrote a letter to mayor Anderson and the city council urging them to balance the competing interests on the plaza.
“By regulating the use of the plaza by well-defined constitutional limits, the city can address many of the concerns expressed by the LDS Church officials and those residents and visitors who have come to appreciate and enjoy the plaza,” wrote Carol Gnade and Dani Eyer of the ACLU’s Utah chapter.
The government of Salt Lake City could take a hint from how the Plaza on the CSU campus is used. Located outside of the student center, our Plaza is the center of social activity on campus. It is our designated “free speech zone” where anyone can get permission to promote anything from anti-abortion beliefs to four-wheeling clubs. Students who go to the Plaza can make their own interpretations about religious rhetoric and the varied political views and lifestyle choices they are exposed to.
Salt Lake City would benefit from establishing a similar zone to debunk others’ misconceptions and fears that the LDS Church is out to keep Utah as a one-religion state with little ethnic diversity. The members of the LDS Church are not ignorant; they just have some strict and even admirable beliefs that other people misunderstand.
Salt Lake is no longer a city in isolation completely inhabited by Mormon settlers; it is a city in transition to a place that has gained the attention and respect of the rest of the world. The recent Winter Olympic Games there were a great example of how people who are not Mormon have been lured to the natural beauty of the Salt Lake area. Whether the members of the LDS Church wish to admit it or not there is a vast underground of people living in the city that don’t agree with their views.
As an institution that was founded on the American ideal of religious freedom and toleration, the church would be wise to respect the views of others in this situation, even if non-LDS people are a minority in the central city of Mormon culture.