A Plazable Solution

The LDS Church is taking its case regarding the Main Street Plaza all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the battle lines have been drawn: People who think everything the LDS Church does is OK think what they’ve done with the plaza is OK, and people who don’t like anything the LDS Church does don’t like this, either. The only description of controversies in Utah more appropriate than “abundant” is “predictable.”

Perhaps a little history of the controversy is in order. In April 1999, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchased a block of Main Street from Salt Lake City for $8.1 million. (Apparently, if you had $8.1 million, you could do this, too.) The block is adjacent to Temple Square, and the church intended to turn it into a lovely plaza, saying it would be “a little bit of Paris,” though presumably with less dog crap and fewer Frenchmen.

Also, while the plaza would be open to the public, the church planned not to allow disruptive behavior, wanting it to be a quiet place of reflection, not a grounds for protesters or people who set themselves on fire. (How come demonstrators never do that anymore? I miss it.)

The negotiations for the sale took place either in meetings completely open to the public, or else in dark, secret caverns hidden from view, depending on whether you read the Deseret News or the Salt Lake Tribune.

At any rate, the city council approved the sale and in October 2000, the new plaza was opened and dedicated. Smoking, sunbathing and protesting were not permitted, and since the church owned the property, they had the right to throw out anyone they wanted to.

Or did they? See, there’s also a public easement through the plaza, allowing anyone, anytime, to walk through it unhindered. Some say this makes the plaza public, like a city park or a sidewalk. And if it’s public, then people should be allowed to do anything guaranteed by the Constitution. If you want to peaceably assemble, or petition the government for a redress of grievances, or have a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury on the plaza, hey, go for it.

So that is the issue. The church bought the land and prettied it up; shouldn’t it be allowed to do whatever it wants with it? Or does that public easement mean there can be no restrictions on speech or behavior?

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — pardon me for speaking in such legal jargon; I will make another poop joke shortly — ruled against the church. The moment this decision was made, full-grown adults began to assemble on the plaza and do the things the church had previously forbidden — smoking, playing loud music and protesting, mainly — simply because now they could. Never mind that it’s a lousy spot for demonstrations because it’s off the main thoroughfare, and never mind that no decent person would intentionally disrupt a peaceful place just for the sake of disrupting it, and never mind that only stupid people smoke. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said we can do this, so we’re gonna do it! In your face, church!

Now, I hate to introduce rationality and logic into a Utah controversy, but I think both sides are a little off. First, to hear the church tell it, if the plaza is made fully public, there will be loud protesters there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I simply don’t see this happening. The only reason someone would protest in that plaza, instead of at a busy intersection or a park, would be if they were protesting the LDS Church specifically. That does occur, of course — twice a year, when the church has its general conference. The rest of the time, the anti-Mormons hibernate, living off nutrients provided by blind hate. So what’s the big deal? Let people protest there if they want to. Most people don’t want to.

As for the other side, I keep hearing people say that yelling angry things at Mormons exiting the temple onto the plaza is no more discourteous or disruptive than when those Mormon missionaries come knocking on their doors. There’s no public easement from the street to my doorbell, so you Mormons have no right to enter it! However, I think that if someone knocking on your door — which you don’t have to answer, by the way — is as distressing to you as being yelled at after attending a worship service, then your problems need to be addressed by a qualified medical professional, not by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

I visited the plaza last week to see what it’s like. First of all, there were no protesters. There was a scruffy man with a backpack and a dog who asked me for money — I mean the man asked, not the dog — but he didn’t seem to be protesting anything, except, maybe, by implication, poverty. There were about a million weddings taking place that day; it was a Thursday in November, which is traditionally when … wait, what? No, I don’t know why there were so many weddings. But there were, and the friends and relatives of the couples were milling around Temple Square and the plaza, and many of the brides were being photographed on the plaza itself. Some of them were probably being asked for money, too, since all I had to give the guy was 70 cents.

It occurred to me that Temple Square is already a beautiful, peaceful place that is open to the public. Those grounds are completely owned by the LDS Church, with no dispute over its right to preserve the quiet atmosphere by whatever means it sees fit.

So why not let Temple Square be the place for quiet reflection, the little bit of Paris, and let the plaza be a nice place that happens to be next to it? The church should rescind its restrictions on the plaza. The fact is, if you stop forbidding misbehavior, you take the fun out of misbehaving. Ninety-nine percent of the people who visit it will behave just fine. And if they do want to yell at temple-going Mormons, so what? They’re already free to do that around the rest of the perimeter of Temple Square; what’s one more block?

Of course, I realize this solution would mean the Mormons and non-Mormons had reached a compromise, which may herald the end of the world, but hey, the world had to end sometime.

Another column where I'm The Guy Who Writes Passionately About Social Issues. I don't like this guy, either. Where's a good Luscious Malone story when you need one?

This is a very lengthy column, one of the longest ones I ever wrote for the Daily Herald. (This length was typical of some Daily Universe-era stuff, though.) I needed to give the background on the controversy, and I had to try to make it sort of funny, too, which was hard.

Notice that I promised to make another poop joke shortly, and then I didn't make one. But I didn't say it would happen in this column; only that it would happen shortly. Be patient.