The American Civil Liberties Union has resolved its claims against the LDS Church regarding public access and signage at Martin's Cove.
In a statement issued Wednesday, ACLU attorney Mark Lopez said while The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "provides an important service by maintaining this National Historic Place," new stipulations between his group, the Bureau of Land Management and the church are meant to ensure unfettered access for all visitors to the Wyoming site, considered hallowed ground by Latter-day Saints.
Martin's Cove is where dozens of early church members died in October 1856 after suffering hunger and exposure to freezing temperatures while trying to pull handcarts to Utah.
The church has obtained a 25-year lease from the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the cove, to allow thousands of visitors into the rural area each year. The majority of those are Latter-day Saints, who pull handcarts on LDS property adjacent to the cove.
LDS volunteers are also posted along the trail on both federal and church property to assist visitors.
Plaintiffs in the suit alleged that they had to go through the LDS Visitors Center near the cove to access trails there and that they were subjected to religious messages on federal property through signs and from LDS volunteers.
"As we say about government-funded soup kitchens run by the Salvation Army, safeguards have to be in place to make sure that religion is not spooned out with the meal. I think the agreement we have negotiated provides that safeguard," Lopez said.
A press release issued May 26 by the LDS Church said the ACLU originally brought suit "because of concerns over management of BLM property by a religious organization. However, once the church's plans for managing the property became clear, the parties agreed that legal action was no longer necessary."
It notes the church signed a document with the ACLU and the BLM confirming its plans for managing Martin's Cove. Von Keetch, an attorney representing the church, said, "Although the document is nonbinding, the church has already implemented most of its provisions."
They include setting aside parking marked "public access," which allows visitors to bypass the visitors center and other church-owned sites, establishing non-proselyting guidelines for LDS volunteers who staff various points of interest along the trail into the cove.
The church has agreed to post visitation guidelines at the public access parking area, noting the cove "will be open to public use without discrimination for historical, educational and scenic purposes." The guidelines also say visitors "have the same rights regarding express as visitors to any other Department of Interior site that is open to the public."
The agreement also stipulates that the BLM will remove an interpretive panel or eliminate the introductory language on the panel on federal land in the cove that describes the survival of handcart pioneers and contains religious references. Several signs in and near the cove used to have both an LDS Church logo and a BLM logo, but the church's logo has been covered.
The BLM has also agreed to add an interpretive kiosk at the beginning of the public access trail that introduces visitors to the area, providing brochures that describe the significance of the area with the information "taken from historical sources."
"Both the separate entry and the removal of religious signs were essential if the public was to have any sense that this land is held in common by all Americans, regardless of religious belief," said Christopher Krupp, attorney at the Western Lands Project, an ACLU partner in reaching the agreement.
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