By Eric Johnson
(PHOTOS CAPTION: Cordial conversations, singing, and prayer will no longer be allowed on a public street in Manti if the city is successful in selling it to the Mormon Church.)
Listen to a 4-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast airing during the week of November 13, 2016 with Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson along with special guest Daniel “Chip” Thompson from Ephraim, UT: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
Before a packed room of more than a hundred local residents and others, the Manti City Council held a public hearing on Wednesday night, November 2nd to listen to a variety of viewpoints concerning the sale of a street adjacent to the Manti, UT temple.
Philosophical and religious dialogues have occurred on this street for many years during the Mormon Miracle Pageant, an event that takes place for two weeks every June. Critics of the sale say that the Mormon Church will use this opportunity to limit open discussions in upcoming years.
According to the city’s website,
The parcel of approximately 1.65 acres is more particularly described as the dead-end portion of 100 East Street from the north side of 400 North Street, north to the intersection with U.S. Highway 89, (approximately 500 North).
The street, which was closed to through traffic nine years ago, is located between the temple grounds and the property across the street owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has been eyed by LDS officials for a number of years. In fact, an attempt to purchase the street in 2010 ended soon after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the city addressing its concerns.
At the meeting on November 2nd, Manti’s 51-year-old mayor, Korry L. Soper, explained that the sale of the street will benefit the city because it would no longer be liable for street maintenance, including snow removal. He said that the council recently approached the Mormon Church to see if there was interest in purchasing the street. The city’s asking price was $80,000, yet according to Soper, the church offered $160,000, showing that there was indeed great interest. He says that the money that will be received in the sale will help fund a sports complex for youth.
The news originally broke in May 2016 when a local resident asked a city official about a rumor concerning the possible sale of the street. The resident was told that a deal had been completed two months earlier. However, other city representatives who were approached denied that the sale of the street had taken place or that there was even any interest in selling it. Since there had been no official public discussion, as per the city’s bylaws, it appears that the November public hearing was the council’s attempt to stay within the letter of the law.
After the mayor gave a five-minute introduction explaining the “possible” sale, he invited those in attendance to approach the microphone and address the council, with a limit of two minutes per person.
Ephraim resident Daniel “Chip” Thompson was the first to step up to the podium, asking if each of the seven white male members comprising the council were Latter-day Saints. Each one nodded his head. This, he said, showed bias in their decision to sell a public street that would severely limit the number of public religious conversations that have taken place on that street for many years at the annual pageant, which is attended by tens of thousands of visitors for eight evenings each June.
“This event is a spontaneous public forum where people come from all over the world come to talk,” he explained. “For over 35 years this public forum has been drawing visitors to Manti – not for the pageant itself but for the discussions that happen on this public street. This is not an event for Manti only or even Sanpete County or the state of Utah. It is a national event that is open to the public.”
Thompson explained that the transfer of the street was the council and church’s attempt to end the public forum, which he said is an infringement on the First Amendment.
“I think we all know that this street is the key to this spontaneous public forum because it is in the middle of all the activity,” he said. “If this street is sold, our event, the Public Forum, is also being sold. Our protected Constitutional rights are being sold.”
Thompson handed the mayor a phone-book sized packet containing the signatures of more than 600 people who opposed the sale of the street as well as 200 of their comments.
For more than an hour, several dozen Manti residents explained why they agreed with the sale, with many claiming that this would not hinder free speech activities; after all, they said, there were other streets where people could evangelize, including 400 North Street.
Discussions and dialogues have taken place among Christians, Mormons, atheists, and others on 100 East Street during more than three decades of pageants prior to the 9:30 start time. Those who were not interested in discussing philosophy and theology could retreat to the temple grounds where there were thousands of seats and places to put blankets and no evangelism is allowed. In fact, nobody was forced to engage in conversations. Once the pageant started, the discussions on the street ended. By allowing the church to purchase this street, Thompson and other Christians fear that a fence will be built around the area; those who attend the future pageants would be then encouraged to remain on the church grounds.
In fact, the food court property that was previously located down the street has already been sold. A new court will be built on this new property. With bathrooms already located on the current church property, the writing on the wall seems pretty clear. By all indications, there would be a ban of any type of “proselytizing” on the street since it would become private church property. In effect, the sale of the street will eliminate the possibility of open and honest dialogue as there had been in previous years.
Several of the residents of the 3,300-person city were angry about any opposition to the sale. One man even took an impromptu poll of the audience, asking how many in the room were Manti residents who agreed with the sale. Most raised their hands, with only one resident opposed. This, he said, showed that the majority from the city should have their way since the others who had expressed their disapproval lived outside the city limits of Manti. However, many Manti residents who are opposed to the sale decided not to attend because they didn’t want to face scrutiny or suspicion from their LDS neighbors.
Another LDS resident suggested that this purchase would eliminate a possible terrorist threat. It appeared that he was attempting to link those who come to the pageant to share their faith with those who those who would want to do physical harm to Mormons. A Christian later told the council that such a threat was baseless, especially since there have been no major violent incidents of any type in the history of the pageant. Making the street private is not a sure-fire way to eliminate any potential disastrous events.
Most who addressed the council said the sale should be completed because the money would fund the sports complex, which is an emotional issue for them. If the city wanted to get the approval of its population, it chose the perfect carrot to put before the horse. Despite the fact that a sports complex for youth would be wonderful, Thompson didn’t think it was worth the cost of contradicting the rights of other citizens.
“This issue is not about a sports complex and everyone involved knows it,” he explained. “This is about something much more important that is precious to all of us, our protected rights as citizens of the United States of America.”
Manti High School, located just a few blocks away from where the sports complex would be built, has perhaps the finest athletic facilities for 2A completion in the entire state and would seem to be an excellent resource for a small city containing fewer than 4,000 residents. This was never a suggestion by those hyping the proposed complex.
The highlight of the hour-long proceeding took place when a lawyer from the ACLU addressed the council, explaining that having a city sell a public street to a private religious entity for the repression of Free Speech was unconstitutional. A letter from the ACLU was provided to the mayor stating its opposition to the sale.
Besides Thompson, at least a half dozen Christians provided their testimonies as to why keeping the street public was important. Among the questions they raised:
- Why did the street close nine years ago in the first place? Was there a history of this intersection being dangerous? Did Manti explore other options other than a dead end street, including the temporary blocking of streets? (If not, there would seem to be value to residents in the community to have kept this street open and eliminate unnecessary traffic on Main Street.)
- Why weren’t other businesses/groups allowed to place competing bids for the street? (For example, real estate developers would have paid much more than $160,000 for a piece of property this large, especially if the homes or condominiums were so well situated with a next-door temple in sight–i.e. “temple view.”)
- Why is there no separation of church and state—especially with this all-LDS council? (Even the city’s website features a night picture of the temple, which would appear to be a conflict of interest. See here.)
- What about the city’s liability in opposing a possible legal suit to this sale? (The city would be liable for legal fees defending its tenuous position.)
- If all visitors will be funneled onto this property during the Pageant and have no reason to leave for the time they are waiting for the pageant to start, would the church allow for free speech activities in this area? (Obvious answer: Not a chance, although the city council did not respond to the question.)
MRM’s Bill McKeever told the council that there is precedence for the LDS Church to end others’ First Amendment rights. He pointed to the sale of an entire Main Street block in Salt Lake City between North and South Temple streets adjacent to Temple Square. In March 1999, the Salt Lake City planning commission recommended that the plaza the church wanted to build would “be no more restrictive than a public park, except there would be no picketing or protesting.” However, city officials along with LDS lawyers met behind closed doors and erased this condition, therefore revising the terms of the sale. A month later, the sale was further amended by allowing
Church security to evict pedestrians who “assemble, picket, distribute literature, sunbathe, smoke, carry guns, play music, make speeches, or engage ‘in illegal, offensive, indecent, obscene, vulgar, lewd or disorderly speech, dress or conduct.” The draft also grants the Church the exclusive right to broadcast speeches, play music, and distribute literature. (Salt Lake City Planning Commissioner Craig) Mariger state(d) that even though he had approved the ban on protesters, none of the other restrictions were presented to the commission. “This doesn’t sound like a public space to me,” Mariger told the Council, “it sounds like an annex to Temple Square.” Divided along Mormon vs. non-Mormon lines, the Council voted 5–2 to approve the sale.” Source
The desire to squash free speech activities at the Mormon Miracle Pageant and discourage attenders from interacting with those holding different religious viewpoints would appear to go against Mormon theology. According to Mormonism, there were two plans offered in the preexistence, with the one offered by Lucifer not forcing the spirits to accept Heavenly Father’s plan, in direct opposition to Jesus’s plan of providing “free agency” to everyone. Apostle Robert D. Hales told a general conference audience,
We cannot remember that we once lived with our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and that we probably sat in meetings much like this, where the Father’s plan for us was explained. We cannot remember that Lucifer, a son of God the Father, a brother of Jesus Christ, rebelled against God’s plan and, in his rebellion, promised he would bring us all back home. But Lucifer would have denied us our free agency, the freedom to make decisions. We cannot remember that his plan was not accepted by us because, without choice, there would not have been a purpose for coming to this mortal probation. We would not have had opposition or repentance. We would not have learned obedience (“The Aaronic Priesthood: Return with Honor,” Ensign, Conference Edition, May 1990, p. 39).
If this is the case, then it would seem that the city’s civil and ecclesiastical leaders would have realized the importance of maintaining the Constitutional right for all American citizens to have discussions on public property. After all, it was Lucifer who wanted to force the “spirit children” to accept Heavenly Father’s plan, yet Jesus’s plan to provide everyone access to free choice was deemed righteous and acceptable. The church should be motivated to put everyone’s fears to rest and proclaim that free speech will continue to be allowed on this property in the years to come so others can also practice their agency.
The city council offered no comment on their final ruling. Could it be that this public meeting held on November 2nd was called with the decision already in hand? Like thirty pieces of silver, it appears that the city of Manti has bedded down with its well-to-do suitor, thereby becoming an accomplice to ending Free Speech during the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant. By doing so, the city’s fathers have put their constituents at risk.