ACLU lawsuit: Speech restrictions at Mormon temple unconstitutional

Published September 12, 2012 10:23 am

Main Street Church wants to distribute literature to visitors at a new Mormon temple.
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The ACLU of Utah alleges an "Orwellian" ordinance in Brigham City is depriving a nondenominational Christian church of its constitutional right to use any and all public sidewalks to pass out literature challenging Mormon beliefs during a month-long open house for a new LDS Church temple.

The ordinance "essentially turns the entire city into a place where free speech, free assembly and free exercise of religion are prohibited until people are granted a special permit designating free speech zones where they are allowed to engage in those activities," states the civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court Tuesday on behalf of Main Street Church of Brigham City. "Main Street Church has the right under the First Amendment to leaflet on sidewalks, which are public forums," while the city may impose only narrowly tailored time, manner and place restrictions.

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from restricting the church's ability to pass out literature on all sidewalks surrounding the new temple owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during its open house, slated to run through Saturday. Main Street Church also wants a permanent injunction that exempts it from the city's Free Speech Zone Ordinance. And it asks for attorneys fees and court costs plus $1 in damages from each of the defendants: the city, its attorney, the police chief and the city administrator.

Brigham City Mayor Dennis Fife was out of town and unavailable Tuesday. City Administrator Bruce Leonard did not return a telephone call from The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Bible-based nondenominational church, formerly known as Living Hope Christian Fellowship, has had a presence in Brigham City since the late '60s.

Church members contacted the Brigham City Police Department on Aug. 18 about passing out literature during the temple open house, when members and nonmembers of the faith are allowed to tour the building. Main Street Church wanted to use all four sidewalks around the temple to distribute what it described as "Biblically-based information about temples and related Christian topics."

Police told Pastor Jim Catlin and other church members that under a city ordinance, apparently adopted in 2010, they would need to apply for a permit, which the church subsequently did. The permit issued on Aug. 21, however, placed what the ACLU described as "severe" restrictions on what activities could take place during the open house, including allowing just four people to pass out pamphlets each day.

It also restricted the church's activities to sidewalks on the north and south sides of the temple, the least trafficked sides of the new building. Catlin reapplied for a permit that would allow the church to use "all city sidewalks" around the temple through Oct. 1, which Brigham City rejected based on safety and pedestrian flow concerns.

Catlin asked Fife on Sept. 5 to reconsider the restrictions and was told the mayor would have an answer by Monday. But when Catlin contacted the mayor again, Fife told him to put his concerns in writing to the city administrator. Catlin did, but when there was no immediate response, and with time a concern, the ACLU went ahead with the lawsuit.

Catlin said in a statement that the church did not intend to "impede the flow of pedestrian traffic, nor would we attempt to force anyone to take any of our literature."

"Main Street Church vehemently opposes the hate speech and perverse actions that some groups have used to badger, mistreat and disrespect the Mormon people," he said. "However, we do believe we have the right to express our beliefs to the public on public sidewalks."

The church believes Mormonism falls outside of orthodox Christianity and is based on erroneous teachings and doctrines. It has produced literature and videos highlighting what it sees as the fallacies of LDS faith.

The complaint says Main Street has gone along with the restrictions until now out of fear of civil or criminal prosecution but "the prohibition on accessing the most trafficked sidewalks has become intolerable."

"The ordinance could be used to silence anyone, from two friends debating politics on the sidewalk to a missionary handing out fliers," ACLU Legal Director John Mejia said in a statement. "When we saw that Brigham City was completely barring a church from the public sidewalk based on the ordinance, we were compelled to take action."

brooke@sltrib.com