Sale of Main Street to the LDS Church

by Reverend Tom Goldsmith

In April of 1999, a huge outpouring of rage permeated the non-Mormon population in Salt Lake City. It’s mayor, DeeDee Corradini sold Main Street to the LDS Church for $8.1 million following a 5-2 vote by the City Council. Main Street always served the city historically as a lively commercial street, adding excitement to the bustling downtown traffic. The plan was to expand Temple Square for the sole purpose of the LDS Church gaining full dominance downtown. Everyone walking on these new LDS grounds would have to abide by and conform to strict LDS rules limiting noise, protest, and frivolity. The city had lost its soul.

I knew that whatever sermon I had planned for the Sunday following the alarming headlines would fail to capture the attention of my liberal/secular congregation. So, I made a change and invited four prestigious people to form a panel to discuss (mostly) the legal aspect of the transfer of property. The panel included: Stephen Clark, litigator for the ACLU; Tom Rogan, one of the two city council members who voted against the sale; Richard Aaron, professor of constitutional law at the University of Utah School of Law; and Steven Epperson, former librarian for the LDS Church. Their presentations offered the sublime combination of fury, controversy, history, and legal perspectives. The Q&A following their presentations manifested a sober acceptance that there was little anyone could do to change the outcome.

The following week I received a call from Stephen Clark (ACLU) who thought there was a legal angle worth considering. In the sale of the property was a clause that stipulated that an easement be preserved 24/7 which would be free of LDS oversight. Clark asked if First Unitarian Church would serve as the chief plaintiff in the case against the LDS Church.

This proposition was taken to the congregation for a special meeting. Stephan Clark was present, listening to the moving accounts from First Unitarian parishioners who preferred not to rock their relationships with Mormon family, neighbors, and colleagues. Clark provided a different context for the case, claiming it was a constitutional issue, not a religious one. His argument was accepted and combined with the feeling that we as a congregation needed to defend the right of free speech, voted unanimously to become the lead plaintiff in the case.

Clark informed me that the ACLU couldn’t just sue the LDS Church without a test case that demonstrated the denial of free speech. So, as I was planning a same-sex “kiss-in” on Temple Square, I learned we had our case after all. A college student walked the Temple grounds wearing a T-shirt which said: “I am for 3.2 Tithing and 10% Beer. He was rudely and forcibly thrown off the grounds by LDS security, and the ACLU had its case.

Although the case was lost in Federal Court, Dani Eyer, the executive director of the ACLU asked me if First Church was willing to appeal the decision. We were. The ACLU, which by that time had some of its more prominent attorneys weigh in on the case, successfully reversed the Federal Court decision in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The LDS church then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which refused to hear the case, allowing the Appellate Court decision to stand. The LDS Church was forced to pay the ACLU $200,000 in legal fees. The legal battles finally concluded in June 2002.

By this time Salt Lake City had a new mayor, Rocky Anderson. In a most ironic turn of events, Rocky, who was once an ACLU lawyer himself, and was known for his streak of radical and independent thinking, gave the easement to the LDS church in exchange for two acres of property on Salt Lake’s west side, known as a neighborhood of underserved and mostly minority families. The Sorenson Community Center was built on the site.

Although rage exploded once again among non-Mormons at the loss of the easement, the swap was legal. Dani Eyer called me to ask if we wanted to serve as plaintiff in challenging the mayor, and I said our congregation wanted to move on and put it all behind us. She agreed and added that ACLU were pretty fatigued themselves in this ongoing battle.

During the years of litigation, First Unitarian Church faced some bitterness from the Mormon population, but also support. I received calls from several LDS Bishops supporting First Unitarian Church in our effort to pursue a constitutional issue. They confirmed the good relationships between the two denominations; it felt like balm for the wounds we were incurring. Dani Eyer and I addressed several gatherings, both at the University of Utah and Utah Valley University on Church-State issues. The discussions were always positive despite differences of opinion.

By 2020, life in Salt Lake City continues without much regard for the sale of Main Street. No issues have exploded, Main Street, south of Temple Square, has been revived. There is even a pub restaurant there now called Whiskey Street, which was what Main Street was named historically when the pioneers began building Zion.

And yet First Unitarian received a bit of notoriety during that time of litigation. Minimally it reaffirmed the church’s reputation as a fighter to protect the First Amendment. That legacy continues to endure.