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Plaza intended to be place of peace

The new plaza connecting Temple Square with Church headquarters should remain "a place of peace — an oasis in the midst of this bustling city," declared President Gordon B. Hinckley.

Whether it does remains to be seen.

Following a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and a decision by a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colo., the Church has taken its case to the public to help correct misunderstandings about the plaza.

In the decision, unrestricted free speech, including protests and demonstrations, is allowed on the Church-owned plaza.

Informational packets from the Church are being distributed to business, community and religious leaders in Salt Lake and Davis counties. The packets include a letter from President Gordon B. Hinckley, as well as background facts and frequently asked questions. The information can be seen on lds.org under the "News Headlines."

The plaza should be "an oasis in the midst of this bustling city — an island of quiet beauty where the weary may sit and contemplate the things of God and the beauties of nature," wrote President Hinckley in the letter. He decried the possibility that "this island of quiet beauty should be used for confrontational or noisy demonstrations," and that "a distressing legal battle has ensued." (The text of the letter is published on this page.)

The case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but a fairly negotiated agreement is more desirable than a legal decision, leaders said.

"We truly feel that when people appreciate the entire history of this project, they will realize that what the Church and city originally tried to do was right for the people of our community," said Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, quoted in a Church press release. "It was an open process where the parties acted with the utmost integrity. When people know all the facts, we are confident they can decide for themselves what is right and proper."

He said encouraging expressions of support have been received from the community, but acknowledged that many people have different and strong views regarding the plaza issue.

Already those seeking quiet moments on the plaza have been noisily disrupted. In one instance, a protester targeted obscenities to a group of 12-year-old young women visiting Church headquarters. The plaza is also frequented by brides and grooms fresh from taking their marriage vows who may now be confronted at the whim of protestors.

"This was not what the Church paid for, not what the people of Salt Lake City deserve and not what most fair-minded people consider reasonable," states the brochure.

Among the points made in the informational brochure is that the original idea for the plaza was initiated not by the Church, but by Salt Lake City, first in 1960, to enhance the downtown areas by adding green space. In 1998, the city, suffering from budgetary woes, approached the Church and offered the property for sale. The Church accepted the proposal and agreed to pay $8.1 million despite the fact that the original idea was to have freely deeded the property to the Church in exchange for the Church developing and maintaining the plaza.

The purchase of the property was subject to the normal lengthy process of public hearings and notifications. From the beginning and throughout the process, the Church made it plain that its interest in having the site was subject to its right to prevent disruptive behavior, including protests and demonstrations. In this proposal, the city achieved its desire to have more green space downtown, and received at least the fair market price for the property as well.

However, some voices in the city opposed the sale. Even as the sale was culminated and Church contractors built underground parking, a large reflecting pool, and beautified the plaza with trees and shrubbery, a lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart rejected the suit, saying that since its sale, "the property in question is no longer a public forum," and there is no constitutionally protected right of speech on "private property belonging to another." The suit was carried to the appeals court, which overturned the ruling. This court said essentially that the city's limited public easement, which it retained in the sale, "now represents a full public forum for protest."

This ruling mandates that the city, not the Church, regulates private religious property as if it were public property, and that it does so in a way that prevents the creation of a peaceful situation where people can meditate. This is a violation of the separation of Church and state, and the Church's right to free exercise of religion, states the Church's informational brochure.

Because this ruling has broad implications on the rights of many churches that own property with public easements, a broad coalition of churches from many different religious traditions filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the 10th Circuit to intervene.

Also noted is the fact that there are no shortages near Church headquarters of public places to protest. More than a mile of public sidewalk surrounds the Church campus of Temple Square and Church offices.

Among the frequently asked questions are:

Question: How can a city sell a public street to a church?

Answer: This practice is extremely common across the United States. Following due process, public entities sell property — including streets, lots, acreage, easements, buildings and vehicles — to private entities all the time. There are dozens of examples of this in Salt Lake City.

Question: Don't public easements, including this one, automatically bring with them rights of free speech?

Answer: No. Negotiations established an extremely limited easement, granting pedestrian "access and passage only." The deed itself states, "Nothing in the reservation or use of this easement shall be deemed to create or constitute a public forum, limited or otherwise, on the property."

Question: Didn't the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decide that the Church's desired prohibition on certain behavior on the plaza would be a denial of First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly?

Answer: Yes. However the Church believes. . . that the interpretation of the court sets a troubling and dangerous legal precedent, one that could affect homeowners, farm owners and business owners in Utah. It allows those who wish to [hold protests] on private property to override constitutional private property rights as well as [overriding] the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment. Churches, towns and cities across America share the Church's view.

Question: Why does the Church feel it can send out thousands of missionaries, yet deny the rights of missionaries from other faiths to preach on its property?

Answer: Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are instructed to follow the laws of the nations and cities in which they work, including laws against trespassing, illegal assembly, etc. Missionaries leave private property when they are asked to do so.

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