Free Speech and Separation of Church and State - In June 2003, the Salt Lake City Council set in motion a second lawsuit involving the public’s First Amendment rights on the Main Street Plaza when it voted 6-0 to swap the plaza’s public easement for land owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the west side of town and raise funds to create a new community center.
Utah Gospel Mission v. Salt Lake City Corporation (2005)
The vote came seven months after the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the ACLU of Utah’s first Main Street case, holding that the easement was a public forum with the accompanying First Amendment rights, and that any viewpoint-based restrictions associated with the easement were unconstitutional. Since the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, city leaders struggled to find a way to both appease the desires of the LDS Church to control expression on the plaza and to honor the community’s expectation that the plaza would remain a public forum. Unfortunately, the city chose to protect the church’s religious use of the property and to prevent anyone with viewpoints other than those endorsed by the church to express them on what used to be downtown Main Street.
In August 2003, the ACLU of Utah and the national ACLU filed a lawsuit (see our final amended complaint filed December 2003) asking the federal court to examine everything surrounding the exchange of the public easement to determine whether the city set aside its long-stated and valid public policy for pedestrian access and passage through the Main Street Plaza in order to accommodate the LDS Church’s desire to impose discriminatory restrictions on speech expressed on that property. The brief maintained that the city’s action violated the free speech rights of its citizens and represented an unconstitutional endorsement of the LDS Church. In May 2004, the Utah Federal Court dismissed the case, and that same month, we appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (see the amended brief we filed in September 2004). In an October 3, 2005 decision, the Tenth Circuit dismissed all of our claims, ruling that the Main Street Plaza is no longer a public forum and that the city’s decision to sell the easement did not violate the Establishment Clause. Unfortunately for Salt Lake City residents, this decision may precipitate the loss of a central public forum of the type that was held in high esteem by our country’s founders who valued, rather than stifled, diverse viewpoints.