When Derek Jones and Matt Aune found
themselves confronted by LDS Church
security for “inappropriate” hand-holding
and a peck on the cheek, their late-night
stroll through Main Street Plaza
became an ugly confrontation where
multiple church security officers handcuffed,
detained and searched the couple.
Jones and Aune have since spoken
out against what they see as discriminatory
treatment: the enforcement of an
un-posted rule against public displays
of affection applied to them for being
gay. The controversial detainment has
already sparked national press coverage
as well as one “kiss-in” protest at Main
Street Plaza, with another one planned
for Sunday, July 19.
Yet, while activists organize rallies
in solidarity with the couple, their arguments
carry little legal weight in light of
The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day
Saints ownership of Main Street Plaza.
Recounting the couple’s July 9 walk on
the plaza, Jones, an advertising account
manager for City Weekly, says the couple,
while walking along the easement, briefly
paused. Aune put his arm around Jones
and gave him a kiss on the cheek. At
that moment, Jones says, multiple security
guards confronted them.
In an ensuing argument between
church-security officers and the couple,
Jones says he was forced to the ground on
his stomach and handcuffed while Aune
was also detained and cuffed. Both were
searched by church security.
Calls to the LDS Church seeking comment
for this story were not returned.
Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah, notes that the Main Street Plaza has been private property since 2003, when the Salt Lake City Council relinquished public easements over the property in exchange for LDS Churchowned property on Salt Lake City’s west side and money to build the Sorenson Unity Center at 1383 S. 900 West.
The 2003 city-church land swap and the ACLU lawsuit that followed, were the final act in an eight-year battle over the plaza. When the city initially sold a portion of Main Street to the LDS Church in 1999, the sale came with four public easements, including an easement for the public to use the plaza as a through-street between South Temple and North Temple. But the public easement came with all sorts of behavior rules (forbidding things such as swearing). The ACLU sued Salt Lake City, arguing that the plaza-conduct restrictions were unconstitutional.
In 2002, the
federal 10th Circuit Court agreed with the
ACLU. But one line in the court’s ruling
said the city could get around the problem
by getting rid of the easements. That’s what
the City Council did in 2003. The ACLU
sued again, arguing that the city couldn’t
sell the public’s rights. But the 10th Circuit
Court upheld the city-church deal, which
allowed the creation of the private plaza
that only looks like a public space.
Attorney Stephen Clark, who, at the
time of the Main Street sale, was the legal director
of the ACLU of Utah, sees the same
issues the organization hoped to bar then
resurfacing in the kissing incident.
“It’s kind of a trap for the unwary
if people are being invited into what
appears to be a public square [yet] happens
to be a private square, and then
being subjected to unconstitutional—if
not discriminatory—rules,” Clark says,
describing this “bait-and-switch” as having
possible legal repercussions, especially
when rules aren’t clearly posted. “It
creates a whole series of problems.”
Still, it’s difficult to dispute a private-property owner’s discretion of who is allowed on the property. Former Salt Lake City mayor, Rocky Anderson, who helped push the original land swap through, is still shocked by the actions of church security.
“This whole episode puts the church in
a very embarrassing light,” Anderson says.
Anderson echoes the sentiments of many
activists following the incident, arguing
that change will have to come from within
the culture rather than the courtroom.
“This isn’t something that’s going to
be solved legally,” Anderson says. “Its just
a matter of the church finally catching up
to the times.”
J.J. Clark, a friend of the gay couple,
is helping to organize a second “kiss-in”
event at Main Street Plaza on Sunday, July
19 at noon. Clark just felt something had
to be done. “I’m not gonna sit back and let
this happen,” Clark says. “I want to voice
my concern and my anger about this.”
Ted McDonough contributed to this article.