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Kissed & Pissed

Activists aren’t letting the LDS Church off the hook for detaining a gay couple on Main Street Plaza.



When Derek Jones and Matt Aune found themselves confronted by LDS Church security for “inappropriate” hand-holding and a peck on the cheek, their late-night stroll through Main Street Plaza became an ugly confrontation where multiple church security officers handcuffed, detained and searched the couple. Jones and Aune have since spoken out against what they see as discriminatory treatment: the enforcement of an un-posted rule against public displays of affection applied to them for being gay. The controversial detainment has already sparked national press coverage as well as one “kiss-in” protest at Main Street Plaza, with another one planned for Sunday, July 19.

Yet, while activists organize rallies in solidarity with the couple, their arguments carry little legal weight in light of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints ownership of Main Street Plaza.

Recounting the couple’s July 9 walk on the plaza, Jones, an advertising account manager for City Weekly, says the couple, while walking along the easement, briefly paused. Aune put his arm around Jones and gave him a kiss on the cheek. At that moment, Jones says, multiple security guards confronted them.

In an ensuing argument between church-security officers and the couple, Jones says he was forced to the ground on his stomach and handcuffed while Aune was also detained and cuffed. Both were searched by church security.

Calls to the LDS Church seeking comment for this story were not returned.

Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah, notes that the Main Street Plaza has been private property since 2003, when the Salt Lake City Council relinquished public easements over the property in exchange for LDS Churchowned property on Salt Lake City’s west side and money to build the Sorenson Unity Center at 1383 S. 900 West.

The 2003 city-church land swap and the ACLU lawsuit that followed, were the final act in an eight-year battle over the plaza. When the city initially sold a portion of Main Street to the LDS Church in 1999, the sale came with four public easements, including an easement for the public to use the plaza as a through-street between South Temple and North Temple. But the public easement came with all sorts of behavior rules (forbidding things such as swearing). The ACLU sued Salt Lake City, arguing that the plaza-conduct restrictions were unconstitutional.

In 2002, the federal 10th Circuit Court agreed with the ACLU. But one line in the court’s ruling said the city could get around the problem by getting rid of the easements. That’s what the City Council did in 2003. The ACLU sued again, arguing that the city couldn’t sell the public’s rights. But the 10th Circuit Court upheld the city-church deal, which allowed the creation of the private plaza that only looks like a public space.

Attorney Stephen Clark, who, at the time of the Main Street sale, was the legal director of the ACLU of Utah, sees the same issues the organization hoped to bar then resurfacing in the kissing incident.

“It’s kind of a trap for the unwary if people are being invited into what appears to be a public square [yet] happens to be a private square, and then being subjected to unconstitutional—if not discriminatory—rules,” Clark says, describing this “bait-and-switch” as having possible legal repercussions, especially when rules aren’t clearly posted. “It creates a whole series of problems.”

Still, it’s difficult to dispute a private-property owner’s discretion of who is allowed on the property. Former Salt Lake City mayor, Rocky Anderson, who helped push the original land swap through, is still shocked by the actions of church security.

“This whole episode puts the church in a very embarrassing light,” Anderson says. Anderson echoes the sentiments of many activists following the incident, arguing that change will have to come from within the culture rather than the courtroom.

“This isn’t something that’s going to be solved legally,” Anderson says. “Its just a matter of the church finally catching up to the times.”

J.J. Clark, a friend of the gay couple, is helping to organize a second “kiss-in” event at Main Street Plaza on Sunday, July 19 at noon. Clark just felt something had to be done. “I’m not gonna sit back and let this happen,” Clark says. “I want to voice my concern and my anger about this.”

Ted McDonough contributed to this article.