Some will be aware that there are moves in Utah to restrict the activities of so-called “street preachers” who witness in Temple Square, Salt Lake City, during Mormon conventions. Not all these preachers use the same methods, some we could not approve of, others we might fully endorse. This is, however, a civil liberties issue and much bigger than a simple bye-law in one small part of America. The following article gives an interesting insight on the issue and tells us something of what some are making of this move over in the USA. Perhaps others would like to make comment, or put an alternative view on the forum?
How Utah’s House Bill 131 Segregates Christians and Defies the First Amendment
by Kurt Van Gorden
In Utah, where the marriage of church and state has not yet been divorced, the state legislature wields its entrusted power to write laws benefiting one church—the Mormon Church—to the exclusion of minority faiths. On February 8, 2005, the Utah House voted 11 to 1 (one negative, one absent) to drive House Bill 131 into law banning Christian street preachers (a minority) from spreading their message on public sidewalks near the Mormon Temple Square. This bill makes it a class B misdemeanor and provides for civil suit should anyone intentionally or knowingly pass “a leaflet or handbill” or display a sign within 100 feet of the door of a “place of worship” and within eight feet of a person without their consent. Among other things, oral communication without consent is also banned in this sidewalk zone.
The twist to this bill came later. Republican Representative Douglas C. Aagard, who submitted this bill, acknowledges the one-sided Mormon Church benefit. The Associated Press reported that Aagard told Utah lawmakers, “the law would help establish standards for street preachers outside [the Mormon] Temple Square.” This leak endorsed a specific religion without equal footing for the other. HB 131, in effect, becomes a state-supported “endorsement” for a religion (the Mormon Church) while another religion is “prohibited” in their “free exercise” (the Christian street preachers). Both prongs of the establishment and restriction clauses found in the First Amendment stand against this bill: “Congress (or Utah in this case) shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That alone should kill the bill.
In this sense the bill resembles Deep South Jim Crow laws that the civil rights movement fought in the 1960s. The street preachers besieged by this bill are American citizens and, as such, they were born with the inherent rights found in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Utah’s mistake is thinking that they somehow can revoke what they didn’t grant—our rights. These rights are ours by birth or by the oath of citizenship.
In the other 49 states and Washington D.C., sidewalks are unquestionably protected as a public forum for First Amendment purposes, so why not throughout Utah? Utah’s Legislature cannot rob free speech from its public forum without stifling the Constitution. Most amazing, if one searches Salt Lake City newspapers, it is the Mormons who have been arrested for assaulting the street preachers, and not the reverse. No record shows that the street preachers struck back. Why, then, is this bill written against the street preachers when they are the victims of assault?
The legislature intents to fix a Temple Square problem with a statewide law. The troubling consequences of HB 131 are multi-faceted. Every American citizen who visits Utah and hands out a leaflet at Temple Square or anywhere in the state is stonewalled through Utah HB 131. If this becomes law, what our nation has freely practiced since 1776 will no longer be the case in Utah. Who can tell how many millions of tracts non-Mormons visiting the area have distributed at Temple Square over the past 150 years? The bill has a long-arm reach over all Americans, which is outrageous and should incense every freedom lover.
Political campaigners should be equally upset since this bill does not exempt their street leaflets. Campaigners are subject to a misdemeanor charge and lawsuit should they, without prior consent, hand a flyer to the wrong person heading to worship. What does that do for Democrats in a Republican majority state like Utah? A radical John Bircher Mormon (from late President Benson downward), who hates Democrats, for example, can bully a leafleting campaigner by claiming he was Temple bound when leafleted. Doesn’t that shoot democracy in the foot?
Another part of the bill simply begs for a federal lawsuit. The bill defines a “place of worship” as “a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or other building set apart primarily for the purpose of worship in which religious services are held.” Under this definition, the Methodist Wesley brothers or Baptist revivalists, who preached in open fields or who hold tent meetings have no protection. Their place of worship is a field or tent, as was Israel’s for 400 years. Can a Mormon missionary be sued for passing a church-leaflet to a Buddhist who intrudes upon his “place of worship,” i.e., earth’s open space where he can sit under a Bodhi tree—a place with a 2,600-year history? The Utah courts can then have the joy of figuring out whether the outdoor “place of worship” for a Hindu, Buddhist, nature lover, Native American, or even an outdoor group of Christians (similar to Jesus and the twelve) is equal to the Mormon granite buildings in Salt Lake City.
Before Aagard championed his protection of the Mormon Church against Christian street preachers, he drew a false analogy with a Colorado law that passed Supreme Court scrutiny. It does not take a politician or attorney to see Aagard’s flawed logic and the bi-polar distinction between Hill v. Colorado and Utah HB 131. Hill centered upon violent actions by demonstrators, who allegedly “physically blocked entrances, pushed, shoved, grabbed, kicked, punched and bit patients and escorts.” In Utah, rather than the street preachers acting in this manner, it has been the Mormons arrested for assault. Aagard’s analogy with Hill simply fails. He has victimized the victims and rewarded the perpetrators.
The bill has drawn strange allies. Eric McHenry, an official representative of Rev. Greg Johnson’s “Standing Together Ministries” was quoted in a Brigham Young University news article about this bill wherein he renounced the street preachers. With Standing Together entering the debate, we have Christians supporting a bill to arrest, jail, and sue other Christians who evangelize differently. How is this bill not a resurrection of segregation and Jim Crow laws from the South? Blacks had to use the alley instead of the public sidewalk while Whites have full entrance on Main Street. In Utah, the Christian street preachers are restricted on the public sidewalks in their contact with the “white, and delightsome”(Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 30:6). Mormons heading to their “house of worship.” How Standing Together can place a kiss of death on fellow Christians and the First Amendment by supporting such unbiblical and un-American sentiments is unimaginable.
I am not a street preacher, but I fully support their rights to preach freely on American streets. I have been active as a Christian minister in heralding civil rights in both Utah and California, speaking on the shared platform with Martin Luther King, III, and other civil rights leaders. To stay silent in the face of a bill like HB 131 is a slap in the face of all Christians whether Black, White, Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical. It is offensive that the Mormon Church and Standing Together Ministries supporting the segregation of Christian street preachers from fellow Americans. HB 131 is entirely unnecessary, since sufficient Utah laws already prohibiting public nuisance, assault, and other scenarios without this bill. If this bill becomes law, then it isn’t only street preachers who have lost their rights, but all Americans.
The Utah Gospel Mission began in 1898 as a resolution of the Salt Lake City Ministerial Association with the unashamed commission that Mormons in the West need to hear the true and genuine gospel of Jesus Christ. The Utah Gospel Mission has had mission workers active in Utah all but sixteen years since 1898 and its w
orkers come from a wide variety of born again, mainline and evangelical Christian denominations.