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Gay incident reopens Salt Lake City's Main Street plaza wounds

Published July 18, 2009 4:00 pm

Culture » Religious divide boils over again on church-owned square.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's the wound that won't heal. The rift that won't close. And earlier this month, two gay lovers' purportedly innocuous late-night kiss -- though LDS Church officials insist it was far more amorous than that -- ripped it wide open.

Utah's simmering religious divide boiled over -- once again -- at the geographical and philosophical intersection of church and state: the Main Street Plaza in downtown Salt Lake City.

"It is a scab that will continue to be peeled away -- and may never heal," says Dani Eyer, the former ACLU director who fought to preserve First Amendment rights on the plaza.

Matt Aune and Derek Jones say they held hands, kissed and then squabbled with security guards on the LDS Church-owned square. Salt Lake City police issued a ticket for trespassing. In protest, supporters of the couple staged a "kiss-in" last Sunday outside the plaza and plan another such demonstration today.

The LDS Church -- a faith to which 60 percent of Utahns belong -- defended its right to regulate "inappropriate behavior" on the plaza.

"What we're seeing now is a manifestation of what should have been obvious from the very beginning," says former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. "This block of Main Street never should have been conveyed to the LDS Church. It was a recipe for ongoing resentments between the LDS Church and those who are not members."

The church bought the strip of Main -- from North Temple to South Temple -- in 1999 after then-Mayor Deedee Corradini and the City Council, with the only two non-LDS members dissenting, signed off on the $8.1 million deal. But the controversy burned for five more years as federal courts were asked to settle the prickly issue of whether the church could govern expression on the plaza and whether the city could retain a public right of way (as outlined in the original deal).

"It was meant to be for everybody," Eyer says. "Where people come and go their constitutional rights go with them."

After a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2002, First Amendment activities returned to the plaza. But demonstrations by anti-Mormon protesters -- including cries of "whore" and "harlot" hurled at newlywed brides -- "sustained divisions" that "reached to the point of hatred" between Mormons and non-Mormons, Anderson says.

In the end, he agreed to trade the public easement for cash and LDS land to build a west-side community center.

"What we were really swapping was a major division that wouldn't go away," Anderson says, for "the opportunity to really improve the lives of a lot of people over generations through the services and facilities that would be available at the [Sorenson] Unity Center."

Anderson tried to patch up the sores, staging a series of "Bridging the Religious Divide" forums in 2004 and 2005 that sprouted small discussion groups throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

"People, in general, have many more similarities than they do differences," says Elise Lazar, who is Jewish and has participated in bridge-building groups with Mormons and members of other faiths since 2004.

"Our guidelines have always been that we are not there to change anybody, but to understand each others' positions," she says. "We're friends now."

Still, she says, LDS views on homosexuality and efforts to thwart gay marriage remain among the "thorniest" issues.

"It's been hard for us to get past," she says. "I have respect for many of the values of the LDS Church, but this [plaza trespassing] incident highlights one of the most flagrant inconsistencies -- love thy neighbor, but only if he or she is heterosexual."

The LDS Church, in a statement, says Aune and Jones were asked to stop "behavior deemed inappropriate for any couple on the plaza," alleging the couple had been drinking (Aune and Jones acknowledge that) and engaged in "lewd language," "passionate kissing" and "groping." (Aune says there was nothing "pornographic," just a show of affection.)

"We hope the plaza will continue to be an asset to the community and enjoyed by the many that cross it each day," the church statement says. "We want it to be a place of beauty and serenity in downtown Salt Lake City for everyone."

John Kesler, a Mormon who helped design Anderson's forums, says the incident and the ensuing "kiss-ins" highlight the need for more dialogue. Mormons don't want to be vilified as anti-gay for "honoring" their beliefs about marriage, Kesler notes, but they also have to realize that stand winds up hurting people.

"The temptation is for everyone to move to the lowest common denominator and scream at each other from across the religious divide," he says. "When you have something traumatic happen, it's an opportunity for the community to convene and talk about it. Ultimately, it can help us create community even though we have differences that tear us apart."

Mayor Ralph Becker says he does not plan to hold any religious-divide forums of his own, nor does he take a position on the plaza incident.

"I am concerned about the hurt feelings that I've heard expressed on both sides," Becker says. "We have so much to work together on that my focus, as mayor, is to work on who we are and where we go as a city."

To that end, he plans to release a report on discrimination this week and push a citywide anti-discrimination ordinance this year. "Equality" and "justice," he says, are a "cornerstone" of U.S. democracy.

Legally, there is not much Becker can do about the plaza, Anderson says. The Main Street sale is history.

"But certainly in terms of community dialogue, there's a lot that the mayor could, and I think should, be initiating," Anderson says. "You don't just let these things fester."

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, leader of the First Unitarian Church, one of the plaintiffs the ACLU represented in the lawsuits, wants to see the issues of church and state, gay and straight discussed on a "grander scale."

"I would like to see dialogue not only among neighbors, but I'd also like to see the dialogue elevated more amongst community leaders and religious leaders."

For now, he hopes the LDS Church "lightens up" on plaza enforcement.

"The LDS Church responds very effectively to very overt cases of human pain and suffering," such as Hurricane Katrina or poverty in Africa, Goldsmith says. "For some reason, they just don't see the pain and suffering of people right here on their very doorsteps, people who are prevented from having their civil rights honored, their human integrity honored."

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