Salt Lake City -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot restrict speech on sidewalks running through its downtown plaza, a federal appeals court ruled.
Kurt Van Gorden, a Marion, Ohio, native and Christian missionary who aims to convert Mormons, didn't take long after the Oct. 9 ruling to pack his bags and head to Utah to celebrate.
Salt Lake City sold the land for the West Church Plaza -- once a part of Main Street -- to the church, but retained easement rights to ensure pedestrian access.
The church said those rights did not include the right to demonstrate and set restrictions on the property. A three-member panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in a ruling that said because sidewalks are a traditional public forum, the city should protect free-speech rights there.
"The city cannot take action that runs afoul of our first and primary amendment," the ruling stated. "The city cannot create a 'First Amendment-free zone.' Their attempt to do so must fail."
The American Civil Liberties Union and the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City had sued after the Mormon church imposed the rules, but a lower court judge had agreed with the Mormon church and the city saying that the limits were constitutional.
Van Gorden, head of the Utah Gospel Mission, was caught up in the dispute when he was arrested on April 7 for handing out literature on the easement. Van Gorden and a partner had refused to leave when asked by a security guard, leading to trespassing charges that were dropped pending the appellate court's ruling.
"I'm happy that the Constitution was upheld," Van Gorden said Monday in answer to the ruling. "The decision made (by the lower court) originally should have never been made."
Van Gorden drove from his California home to Salt Lake City last week to pick up where he left off in April. "It was like a celebration for us," he said after returning from the trip.
He took over the Utah Gospel Mission in 1979 and estimates it converts about 30-35 Mormons a year. He said he regularly hands out literature around the Mormon Temple Square, headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which claims 73 percent of the city's population as members.
The Mormon church had claimed that permitting free speech on the sidewalks would infringe on its right of free expression, but the court ruled that the church "has no First Amendment right to be protected from public speech."
The church, which turned the property into a plaza with fountains, reflecting pools, plants and statues, called the ruling "very troubling" and said it plans to appeal to the full appeals court.
"In substance, the 10th Circuit has ruled that even though the church paid more than $8 million for the Main Street property and millions more to improve it, the church has little right to control what occurs on that property," said attorney Von Keetch.
"We find that ruling very troubling. While we respect the court's decision, we believe this issue is so important that it deserves a review by the full court."