Evangelical Christians arrested on Mormon church's plaza

Posted: Friday, April 12, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Two protesters distributing Christian pamphlets were recently arrested on a stretch of Main Street that the Mormon church bought from the city to restrict protests and other activities there.

The April 7 trespassing arrests on the plaza were the first since the church paid $8.1 million for the site, gaining exclusive rights to distribute literature and broadcast speeches on the block.

The purchase prompted several lawsuits over free speech rights, since the city retained the right for the public to walk across the property.

The Christians who were arrested, Kurt Van Gorden, 48, and Melvin Heath, 46, were part of a group that had been distributing evangelical literature during the semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The men twice refused to leave the plaza before they were arrested, police Sgt. Fred Louis said.

Church spokesman Dale Bills said the men were disruptive. Three other protesters received citations.

Stephen Clark, the American Civil Liberties Union's legal director for Utah, argued the Christians were ''engaging in core free speech activities.''

In 1999, the church won City Council approval to outlaw smoking, sunbathing and bicycling on the plaza and ban ''any illegal, offensive, indecent, obscene, vulgar, lewd or disorderly speech, dress or conduct.''

The ACLU has called the restrictions unconstitutional because the city retains an easement across the block for pedestrian access.

One lawsuit challenging the rules is pending and another, which the church won, is on appeal.

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