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Judge sides with ACLU in plaza case

Ruling enforces 10th Circuit's earlier decision

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2003 11:42 a.m. MST

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart has sided with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and issued a judgment and permanent injunction in the Main Street Plaza case.

Stewart Wednesday rejected pleas from Salt Lake City and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which asked him to hold off entering a judgment until the two parties could solve the plaza issue.

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Stewart's ruling clears the way for the ACLU to collect legal fees from Salt Lake City. The LDS Church has tentatively agreed to pay half of those fees.

The judgment spells out that the plaza is a "public forum" and that the church's restrictions on expressive conduct violate the First Amendment. The injunction prevents Salt Lake City and the LDS Church from enforcing the restrictions on the plaza's public easement.

Despite the ruling, City Attorney Ed Rutan said very little will change on the plaza, since the city and church had been following a decision from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned an earlier ruling by Stewart last October.

"As soon as the 10th Circuit decision came down, even though the judgment hadn't been formally entered the city was complying with the 10th Circuit's decision," Rutan said.

Stewart's new ruling is the legal document enforcing the 10th Circuit's decision.

Still, Stewart's ruling leaves many unanswered questions for the city and the LDS Church. Specifically, the church is wondering whether its restrictions on sunbathing, smoking and dress can still be enforced. Also in question is whether the city has any responsibility to enforce noise codes on the plaza and whether the church now has to obtain a permit to hold events on its own land. Finally, the church wants to know if it is responsible to protect the public from dangerous or potentially violent situations that may occur on the plaza.

"This is not unexpected. It is simply a matter of Judge Stewart following his obligation to enter judgment as ordered by the 10th Circuit. The church is studying the judgment," church spokesman Dale Bills said.

Both the city and church had filed court briefs asking Stewart to refrain from issuing the ruling because the parties were busy working on a solution that they believe would solve the 10th Circuit's issues. Also, the church noted it plans to appeal the 10th Circuit's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the ACLU successfully argued that a judgment was appropriate because any appeal or out-of-court-compromise of the Main Street Plaza case will be months in the making. Moreover, ACLU attorneys said that any compromise would not void the fact that the ACLU had prevailed in its arguments before the 10th Circuit and that the appeals court's ruling should be supported by an official judgment.

ACLU for Utah executive director Dani Eyre did not return calls for comment.

When the city sold the block of Main Street to the LDS Church in 1999, it retained a public-access easement across the proposed plaza while the church could control behavior on the property. In response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, the 10th Circuit ruled that the easement creates a free-speech forum, similar to what exists on public sidewalks.

The church didn't like that decision because it paid $8.1 million for the land and the ability to control what happens there, including restricting protests, demonstrations, leaflet distribution and some dress and speech.

The court suggested that the city either give its easement to the church — dissolving the right to public access and free speech — or craft time, place and manner restrictions for the plaza.

Anderson's proposed compromise calls for a two-acre parcel owned by the LDS Church to be given to the city in exchange for the city's easement across the Main Street Plaza.

The land on Salt Lake's west side would be developed by the Alliance for Unity, a group of community leaders including Anderson and the LDS Church, which will raise $5 million for a building where the University of Utah and Intermountain Health Care will offer free legal, business and medical advice as well as educational opportunities for children and adults.

As the compromise wends through City Hall it will probably be until at least the summer before it can be approved.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com

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