Don’t let anyone tell you that last week they couldn’t see a raging steam seep from the cracks of the LDS Church Office Building. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision jettisoning LDS Church restrictions on Main Street Plaza was a gauntlet.
What now? Eight million dollars buys a whole heck of a lot of downtown, but it doesn’t produce easy answers to real predicaments. Predictably, the church immediately framed this as an issue of religious freedom. Appeal? You betcha!
Until then, brace for the possibility that the church will lose its appeal, and instead head into a showdown with Salt Lake City. Both sides will have to get their heads on straight. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, much to the frustration of First Amendment supporters, has waffled. Last week, he refused to consider a sale of the easement to the church. This week, he nudged toward some sort of preliminary “transfer” of the easement, but only if the church kept the plaza open to public traffic. The rub is that the free speech restrictions of yore would largely stay the same. It’s hard to fault the mayor for creativity, however. Essentially, this arrangement would give us the same end results as before the court decision, but with a different context. The plaza’s public easement would cease to exist, because the church would then supposedly own the whole stretch. Any sort of “easement” would exist solely at the will and mercy of the state’s predominant religion. The church might be happy to let the public walk through, but the fate of free speech on the plaza is a foregone conclusion. It’s a neat trick on the mayor’s part, but leaves us back where we started. A part of the First Amendment has died. If that’s what it takes to keep the city whole, so be it. Those of us with copies of John Milton’s Areopagitica, the classic defense of free discourse, know what’s been lost.
The most comic words last week came from the mouth of church attorney Von Keetch: “The court has been very clear: It’s declared the sidewalks to be full-blown public forums. That ruling is unprecedented and troubling,” Keetch gushed. Free speech on the sidewalks? Where do these people think they live? America?
Perhaps we should reinstall the geniuses of City Council who voted in 1999—along religious lines, natch—to approve this sale. Now we have letters to the editor in our daily newspapers demanding that the church get a refund on its money, and that the east wall of Temple Square be rebuilt. The real question is, “Who thought tearing down this wall was such a good idea in the first place?”
From the day of sale onward, these events have fallen into the familiar rubric of Mormon vs. non-Mormon. That’s most unfortunate, but unfortunately unavoidable. The fact remains that when religious institutions stick their necks in the secular realm, they risk criticism and ill will. This formula holds true almost regardless of the issue, be it gay marriage, mandatory burqas on the heads of women, or sales of public land and, in this case, constitutional rights. Once that door’s opened, it’s difficult getting it closed. Some Christians know this well enough. What’s the verse? “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Where’s Jesus when we need him?
The court decision put joy into the hearts of “Evangelicals,” but for reasons not entirely admirable. They rushed to the plaza for bouts of freestyle preaching. Why? To win converts? That’s highly unlikely. No, they relished the opportunity to pitch a tent on enemy territory. That’s what’s called good, old-fashioned spite.