Jul 20, 2009

[caption id="attachment_1938" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Main Street Plaza, Salt Lake City, UT - Photo by Flickr user Ecnerwal"][/caption]

Next time you're in Salt Lake City, you had better refrain from kissing your loved one in public. It could get you arrested.

Especially if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which runs the show in town, doesn't like you or what you stand for.

A gay couple learned this the hard way on July 9, when they were handcuffed and arrested for trespassing after church security guards saw them hold hands and kiss on the cheek while on Main Street Plaza.

This altercation, which resulted in one of the men being thrown to the ground by the city police during the arrest, led demonstrators to gather Sunday for a "kiss in" on the plaza in front of Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City. Gay and straight couples marched while holding hands and engaging in a bit of smooching. This was the second kiss-in since the incident happened in early July.

The plaza on which the gay couple was seen kissing is owned by the church but has remained open to the public.

Many others have kissed and hugged while on the property without repercussion. One resident who attended the first kiss-in on July 12 said she had kissed her husband on the plaza many times.

"Nobody has said a thing to us," Isabelle Warnas told The Salt Lake Tribune. "My husband and I can't understand the discrimination. This is not right."

The incident also proves how easily a one-time public space can suddenly become a theocratic kiss-free zone.

Ten years ago, the plaza was public land where everyone could exercise their constitutional rights. But in 1999, with the approval of then-Mayor Deedee Corradini and the City Council, the church bought a strip of the plaza for $8.1 million.

The rules of the sale created four easements so the public could continue to use the land, including the plaza between the South and North Temple buildings. But church officials saddled these easements with behavior restrictions, such as forbidding swearing and other free speech activities.

The ACLU sued the city over the transaction's rules, arguing that the church could not govern expression on the plaza when the government retained a public easement. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the ACLU, and in 2002, ruled that First Amendment activities could not be prohibited so long as the city retained the public easement.

But in 2003, the mayor sold the public easement to build a west-side community center. The transaction allowed the church to ban protesting, smoking, sunbathing and other "offensive, indecent, obscene, lewd or disorderly speech, dress or conduct."

Again, the ACLU sued, arguing the city couldn't trade away the public's rights.   But the 10th Circuit upheld the easement's sale, creating a "private plaza that only looks like a public space."

That brings us to today -- when the Mormon church can have a gay couple arrested for trespassing. (The church is already known for its active role in passing California's Proposition 8, which banned the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state.)

"What we're seeing now is a manifestation of what should have been obvious from the very beginning," former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune. "This block of Main Street never should have been conveyed to the LDS Church. It was a recipe for ongoing resentments between the LDS Church and those who are not members."

That ongoing resentment was front and center at yesterday's protest, where counter-protestors from the anti-gay group America Forever engaged in a hateful shouting match with the kiss-in demonstrators.

All this goes to show what can happen when religion plays a dominating role in the public square. In this case, we mean that literally.