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Free speech zones suspended in Brigham City

Published: Friday, Sept. 14 2012 8:05 p.m. MDT

The Brigham City Utah Temple, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. City officials said they will not enforce their "Free speech" ordinance while a lawsuit is pending in federal court.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

BRIGHAM CITY — The question of free speech had been at the heart of a federal lawsuit that was initiated by an emergency motion, but visitors to the new Brigham City Utah Temple on Friday may not have known it.

As they took tours and pictures and were unloaded and reloaded from buses throughout the day, there was no one trying to proffer any pamphlets or newspapers. But when demonstrators started arriving in the early afternoon, they had more access to temple patrons than they'd had before.

Thursday evening, an agreement was reached between the Main Street Church of Brigham City, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and Brigham City officials after the city said it would not enforce the free speech ordinance that had limited demonstrators' access to certain areas around the temple.

"We're excited," Rick Sweet of Mormonism Research Ministry said. "Unfortunately, it's done about two days before the temple open house has concluded, but we're glad they backed down."

The Main Street Church and the ACLU filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court after protestors said they were prohibited from passing out fliers on public sidewalks that border The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' new temple in Brigham City.

The night before a hearing in which the ACLU planned to ask for a temporary restraining order against the city, the two parties reached an agreement.

Brigham City officials agreed to temporarily not enforce the free speech ordinance, as long as the Main Street Church limited its participation on each side of the temple to four protestors, addressing the city's public safety concerns.

ACLU attorney John Mejia said his organization was "thrilled" with the decision. But the Main Street Church did not take advantage of the space Friday morning and afternoon. Calls to Main Street Church officials for comment Friday were not returned.

Rick Jeppesen, a volunteer at the temple for the past five days, said he noticed those from the Main Street Church holding signs at other times. The protesters, Jeppesen said, hadn't caused any problems. 

"I think, overall, they've been really good," he said, adding he hadn't seen anyone Friday. "I haven't seen anything. Maybe they felt (the agreement) was the victory and they don't need to come."

Sweet said the pamphlets he carries explain the differences between biblical Christianity and Mormonism. He said his goal is to be kind, friendly and loving.

"If people want to take (the pamphlet), great," Sweet said. "If they don't, we say, 'Have a nice day.' We're just trying to get the message out and give people a chance to exercise their free agency."

City officials have said the free speech zones were created for public safety reasons. They further explained how they attempted to reconcile safety with the objective of those hoping to share their message.

"The city established three free speech zones on public sidewalks that were adjacent to the private property on which the LDS temple sits," according to a news release from the city. "Those free speech zones allowed protesters, demonstrators and pamphleteers to engage in protected activities in three locations on public property/sidewalks adjacent to the temple and gave then complete access to every corner around the temple."

Representatives of the Main Street Church, which describes itself as Bible-based and nondenominational, felt the restrictions implemented by the ordinance violated their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, Mejia said.

While the hearing was canceled in light of the agreement, Mejia said it doesn't mean an end to the lawsuit.

"The restraining order asking that they not enforce it is kind of moot, but the issue itself remains very important," he said. "We continue to believe it's way over-broad, and if they did try to enforce it, it couldn't be enforced constitutionally because it covers basically any speech and requires a permit for it."

Mejia said the city has agreed not to enforce the ordinance "indefinitely" and will give 10 days' notice if that changes. Mejia said the ACLU would again try to obtain a temporary restraining order if such a situation arises.

In the meantime, Mejia said he hopes the court and Brigham City will review the ordinance.

"We hope they've looked at their ordinance and realized there are problems," he said. "For those reasons, the lawsuit continues."

The news release said the city's ordinance was passed in 2010 and is similar to those utilized in other cities.

"Salt Lake City has such an ordinance which the federal court has upheld as constitutional in balancing the rights of citizens and visitors who wish to engage in protected activities while advancing the interests of public safety," it states.

Kendall Koyle came from the Burley, Idaho, area with his family, including family members from Montpelier, Idaho, Duchesne County and Logan. Their experience was also a pleasant one.

"There's opposition in all things," Koyle said. "People have their rights, their free speech."

John Ficklin, a LDS Church volunteer working the corner where at least one Main Street Church member has taken camp before, said he has lived in Brigham City for 12 years. The fact that members of the Main Street Church were at the open house surprised him, "not one bit."

"In fact, the first time I came here and saw protestors, I knew exactly who it was," Ficklin said. "They're probably the anti-Mormon church in Brigham."

They hold signs and hand out magazines, he said, but they haven't really been disruptive at all. He said they're just trying to "be known" in a predominantly LDS area.

"I think they stand out here to get their 10 minutes of fame," Ficklin said. "They weren't bothering me. This is public. The thing is, they wanted to come in by the buses, which is a safety hazard."

Sweet said being kept from the bus areas curtailed his efforts "to a great degree." In the 23 years he has handed out pamphlets at temple open houses — traveling as far as England to do so — this was the first time he had ever been restricted in any way, Sweet said.

"We felt our First Amendment rights were being violated," he said. "I'd like everyone to know the main reason we're out here is because we love the Latter-day Saints. I personally have never been a Latter-day Saint, but I have a real love for the Mormon people."

Nita Seely and her husband, Glen, traveled to the open house from Salt Lake City. They'd heard of the ordinance issue and were glad when they arrived to find it wouldn't impact their visit.

"I'm glad to see it's a peaceful, lovely day," Nita Seely said. "I've seen (demonstrators) down in Salt Lake, but not anything bad or terrible. … It takes away from the peacefulness and makes it so it's contentious."

Bob Pilch of Puyallup, Wash., stood on the southwest corner of the temple just after 4 p.m. Friday holding a sign reading, "According to God, how many Gods exist?" and having a lively discussion with volunteers. Pilch said he was not there on behalf of any church in Brigham City or his home state.

"I go to a half-dozen of these things a year," he said. "I'm here for general conference. … I'm sharing the truth about the Mormon Church and the Bible with LDS people I've come across."

Though Pilch is not a party to the lawsuit, he said he had been made aware of the ordinance and its requirements.

"I personally felt the restrictions were unwarranted," he said. "I thought they were a deliberate move to restrict our freedoms. … It was very broad. Generic."

Still, Pilch said he was able to talk to several people from his post on the corner and that he has been able to engage people and distribute the newspaper he carried with him.

"I've had people get upset," he said. "I understand that. We're challenging their core belief."

Ellis Howard, of Tremonton, was working as a security officer Friday and said he had heard there had been minor problems — a woman trying to enter the temple with a camera or a man who was yelling. For the most part, he said, "it's been pretty peaceful."

"It's just routine," Howard said. "It doesn't bother me in any way. We live in America, and we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion."

The LDS Church is scheduled to dedicate the temple on Sept. 23.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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