The drive for civil harmony was disrupted by a protracted fight over the use of a single-block walkway in downtown Salt Lake City. Temple Square, home to the Salt Lake Temple and the Visitors' Centers, was expanded to the east when the Church reacquired the grand old Hotel Utah in 1987. This posh empire hotel was refurbished as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building to house restaurants, offices, a theater, and a genealogical library. To consolidate its property, in 1999, the Church bought from the city a block of public street between the building and Temple Square, paying $8.1 million for it and closing it to traffic. The Church landscaped the strip and opened a gate from Temple Square into what became Main Street Plaza. Brides have their pictures taken there with the temple in the background. Twenty-four hour public access was allowed by way of a public easement, but the Church required "suitable" behavior-no smoking, sunbathing, bicycling, distributing anti-LDS literature, and "engaging in any illegal, offensive, indecent, obscene, lewd or disorderly speech, dress, or conduct."
Security guards restrained the behavior of pamphleteers who flock to Salt Lake City during conference time to carry signboards and give out leaflets attacking the Church. The enraged demonstrators took their protest to court, but the local courts upheld the Church's right to impose restrictions on the Plaza's use. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah appealed this ruling to the 10th Circuit United States Court of Appeals in Denver, which overturned the decision. The three Denver judges voided the restrictions on the Main Street Plaza on the grounds that the city had retained an easement that required opening the one-block stretch to pamphleteers and smokers. The judges spoke of the marketplace of ideas in religion being a hallmark of American society and that to restrict activities in public places infringed on free speech. Local ACLU leader Dani Eyer agreed. "People who have problems with a religion have a right to offer alternative views near the seat of that religion's power. 'It is as it ought to be.'" This opinion left the city and the Church in a quandary of conflicting territoriality. The Church owned the land, which they had purchased with the idea of controlling behavior. The city retained the easement, which the judges said required free speech.
Public opinion split along religious lines. Opened as a place for solitude and contemplation, the two-acre plot became a symbol of the local power struggle. The Church hinted that additional funds for the easement might be available. Mayor Anderson refused to give up the easement but began to talk of limiting restrictions to a couple of "protest zones," with controlled noise, placards of limited size, leaflet distribution, and "other peaceful individual expressive activities." He called it an olive branch, giving the Church 95 percent of what it wanted. The Church rejected the plan as no compromise at all. Stephen Pace, a local resident, noted that no recent issue compared to the conflict that "dramatically and unnecessarily picked at the scab" of the "pretty iffy" 150-year church/state relationship.
Meanwhile, the plaza protesters became popular media figures. Kurt Van Gorden, the Baptist preacher from Southern California, kept on trying to save Mormons by handing out pamphlets to passersby during his monthly trips to Salt Lake City. "I'm sure I'm a pain to the Mormon Church," he admitted, "But do they see how much of a pain they are to the Constitution and American citizens?" Van Gorden noted that "The persecuted have now become the persecutors in what they've been doing to people like me, in trying to prevent me from the free exercise of my beliefs." Lonnie Pursifull, another plaza preacher, said he knew he was an unpopular person, but "I'm not in this for popularity." Pursifull preaches to atheists and homosexuals as well as Mormons. "We go and show them their sin and then we show them a way out-faith in Jesus Christ. . . . If we just went there and bashed them and trashed them, we wouldn't be doing them no good."
When the situation was about as tense as could be, Mayor Anderson agreed to give up the easement entirely in exchange for two acres of land, worth almost $100,000, on Salt Lake's west side, to be used as a community center for the underprivileged. Utah's Alliance for Unity, which had been fidgeting at the edges of the dispute calling for civility, stepped in to raise $5 million to build the community center.
The swap of easement for land was consummated on 28 July 2003 with a six to zero positive vote by the City Council. Councilwoman Nancy Saxton abstained, regretting that the options for LDS believers and nonbelievers to coexist had been closed off. "The lines are drawn," she said. "That part of Main Street is really totally private." The Church won't put up signs or gates, but pedestrians will feel their power to do so. The Unitarian Church and the ACLU swiftly filed suit against the city for giving up the easement. As land divides the city and state, so does liquor. When the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control prepared an extensive restructuring of the state's liquor laws, the director gave it to the Church to review before the public hearing. Church officials refused to comment on the proposed changes but indicated that they would not oppose the legislation if it remained intact. Although tacit Church support was necessary to pass the bill, citizens nevertheless resented that no other entity had an advance look. The Tribune denounced this as bad public policy, saying an open process with the widest possible public debate from the beginning would be preferable to the appearance of advance veto power. The ACLU demanded copies of all documents, believing that "democracy dies behind closed doors." Critics thought the Church had hijacked the democratic process, preventing the input of others.
Nothing shows the state of Mormon relationships with American culture better than the conflicts in Salt Lake City. Friendly, vigorous, happy Mormons make every effort to open their arms to the world, and yet no one dislikes Mormons more than the "Gentiles" who live among them. They see the Church as backward, clannish, and repressive. Since the end of polygamy in the nineteenth century, Mormons have wanted to assimilate into American culture. They volunteer, they contribute, they are law-abiding, and yet they are resented. Despite gestures of good will on both sides and efforts to accommodate one another, tension remains. Although tolerance and kindliness will reign on the surface, the deep-seated aversions emerge again and again. Noel de Nevers, a Gentile Mormon watcher, suggests that non-Mormons have three options-to retreat, to resist, or to relax. For himself, he chooses the last option and notes the advantages: besides local cultural and educational opportunities, he always has something to talk about.