A non-denominational church in Utah has filed a federal lawsuit challenging an ordinance in Brigham City that restricts speech to designated “free speech zones.”
Main Street Church, which has been active in the community since the 1960′s, says that it sought to distribute Gospel literature specific to its concerns about Mormonism outside of a newly-constructed LDS temple beginning on August 18th, but has become frustrated by restrictions imposed by the city.
According to reports, the ordinance at issue requires individuals that wish to engage in free speech activities, such as distributing literature, to first apply for a permit. In turn, officials in Brigham City will outline the area in which the applicant is allowed to conduct its activities, along with other specifications, such as how many may participate.
When Main Street Church requested permission to reach out to Mormons adjacent to the new LDS temple during its open house from August 18th through September 15, they state that the permit limited the number of participants to four, and advised that they could only stand on the north and south ends of the building, away from the thousands of people entering the building.
The city says that the restricted areas are where buses unload the large crowds seeking to visit the temple, and that the city feels that it has an obligation to keep the pamphleteers away due to safety concerns.
“We have a huge traffic issue in that area,” City Attorney Kirk Morgan said. “We even would discourage the LDS Church or any other individual from handing out pamphlets in that area.”
However, Pastor Jim Catlin believes that the church should have the right to engage in free speech on the public sidewalk as long as they are not doing anything unlawful.
“If Main Street Church were to access those sidewalks during the open house, we would not impede the flow of pedestrian traffic, nor would we attempt to force anyone to take any of our literature,” he told local television station KSL. Catlin further outlined in a statement that he opposes aggressive outreach tactics.
He stated that the church applied for another permit, requesting that it be allowed to distribute literature on the east and west sides of the building, but that its application was denied.
“The overbreadth of Brigham City’s ‘free speech zone’ ordinance is breathtaking,” commented John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah. “Under this ordinance, you would arguably have to apply for a permit to engage in nearly any speech in the city. The ordinance could be used to silence anyone, from two friends debating politics on the sidewalk to a missionary handing out fliers.”
The ACLU has now filed a lawsuit against Brigham City, requesting a federal court to grant an injunction against the ordinance.
“In short, with this ordinance, Brigham City 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,” the brief states. “Failure to comply with these restrictions will mean civil and criminal penalties for those engaged in activities that are clearly protected by the First Amendment.”
“They have access all over that property to be seen and heard,” Morgan argued. “They have not been banned by any means. They’ve been there every day. … We have other protestors there who have been abiding by the free speech zones almost every day, too.”
An estimated 18,000 people have been attending the open house each day.