Students of urban planning and denizens of Salt Lake City might remember a time in 1999 when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints caused a stir by purchasing a block of Main Street between North and South Temple for $8.1 million. The reason for the purchase was to provide a pedestrian link between the Church office and administration plaza, the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, and Temple Square; and all in the runup to the opening of the Conference Center.
Many groups decried the sale, arguing that municipalities typically aren’t in the business of selling public streets to religious organizations. (Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a group of Episcopalians pulling the same thing off, but Mormonism and Salt Lake City are deeply intertwined.) There were also concerns about the Church privatizing the area and therefore limiting free speech. An example of this was in 2009 when a gay couple reportedly engaged only in minor PDA, but was escorted off the premises. The Colbert Report managed to pick up the story.
Regardless, the purchase went through, and the plaza and reflecting pool are now pretty well woven into the fabric of the city.
We now venture to Manti in central Utah, home to what is objectively the best temple in the Church, as well as the Mormon Miracle Pageant, and some livestock. According to the local Sanpete Messenger, the City of Manti (pop. 3,300) intends to sell a one-block stretch of 100 E to the Church. The piece of the street, between 400 N and US 89, was converted to a dead-end road in 2007 per the recommendation of the Utah Department of Transportation, and abuts Church-owned property on all sides—the Manti Temple grounds, a Distribution Center, and the area’s Family History Center. The city, however, continues to maintain the street because it is public land.
Appraised at $80,000, the Church offered to buy the street for $160,000, with all of the proceeds going to construct a new sports complex in town while taking maintenance of what is essentially a glorified driveway for Church facilities off of Manti City’s books. It seems like everyone stands to benefit from the sale.
Not so. The street is also the primary gathering point for protesters during the Mormon Miracle Pageant. Privatizing the street, they say, will deprive them of free speech anywhere near the event itself. Skeptics also point out that the entire Manti city council is LDS, a clear conflict of interest.
The city council pointed out that “every dollar counts” in rural Manti, and road maintenance is expensive. In thinking of the greater good for the people, a new sports complex minus the cost of maintaining what has already become a private driveway is better for everyone. Nevertheless, the ACLU intends to file a lawsuit that dissenters say will cost the city far more than the $160,000 gain.
The relationship between Church and state is seldom as interesting as it is in a place like Utah. And rural, more conservative (and more heavily LDS) Utah makes for an even more engaging case study. Will protests erupt along 100 East as residents attempt to thwart what they see as an aggressive theocracy that has too much control at the local political level? Probably not. In the end, chances are strong the sale will go through, Manti will get its sports complex, and protesters will have to hang out somewhere else.
Up next: the LDS Church resurrects the closed Training Table franchises, but when you call to place your order, you get routed through to the Missionary Training Center.