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Issues of Speech and Faith



It was a few days before I was scheduled to pull up stakes and leave North Carolina for Utah. I was in the gym for my usual workout, saying goodbye to friends, when Mark wandered by. I don’t know his last name—gyms are like that. I did know a few things about Mark: that he was an unpublished writer of Christian novels, and one of those enthusiastic Baptists for which that region is so noted. I mentioned I was moving to Utah. He went white. Or perhaps I should say whiter.

“You’re going to live with Mormons?” he asked, with some urgency. Mark knew that as a jack Presbyterian, I am not particularly religious, but since he sees it as his job on earth to save souls for Christ, the welfare of mine was not far from his mind. And suddenly, mine seemed to him to be in mortal peril.

“But Mormons are, are …”—he searched for a word—“heretics!”

I’ve been thinking about Mark these first few weeks on the job here, in light of the debate over the Main Street Plaza. The city council seems poised to take the issue out of Mayor Rocky Anderson’s hands and give up the easement that allows public use, and by extension First Amendment use, of the property. The church is not so afraid of secular disturbances, it seems, as it is of challenges from people like Mark, who have already made their presence felt.

I think giving up the easement would be a mistake.

Let me say first that I believe that the exercise of First Amendment rights on this formerly public land should be protected. My understanding of the sales contract entered into by the Church and the city is that it would not have been signed without the easement, and that the parties were well aware that the easement would at some point have to pass Constitutional muster. My guess is that if the courts are allowed to decide this issue on those grounds, the public’s historic right of usage would prevail.

But here’s my other issue. Does the LDS Church have enemies out there, people who disagree emphatically with its tenets? You bet, folks like Mark. But every time it throws its weight around to show it has the political muscle to control the social agenda in Utah, it just makes a bigger target of itself. To my mind, that demonstrates insecurity and moral weakness. It is time for the LDS Church to mature, to grow out of its persecution complex. Acting otherwise only emboldens people like Mark.

Arguments over property rights are just a smoke screen. I no more agree with the Church on that issue than I do with abortion providers who try to keep protesters off the public sidewalks in front of their private property for the sake of clinic access. Speech should be as free as possible—the more of it the better.

That is what’s at stake here: Control, of the reins of power, of behavior, of ideas. It ill suits a religious institution to be more concerned about that than issues of faith. The Marks of this world are not a threat.