Temple Square Salt Lake City, UtahToday’s Deseret News has an interesting story about Soulforce, a gay rights activist group that had plans to visit, and likely protest on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, UT.

The Church, has apparently asked that the Soulforce members stay away from Temple Square and other Church property in Salt Lake City:

Soulforce Equality Riders planned to visit Temple Square and volunteer at the LDS Church’s Welfare Square Cannery in Salt Lake City today before taking their message about gay and lesbian issues to Utah Valley State College on Wednesday and Brigham Young University on Thursday.

But officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have asked Soulforce not to enter Temple Square or the cannery or any other church-owned properties, a request Soulforce members equate to a ban.

Reaction by the Soulforce organization was as predictable as it was disingenuous:

“We are being told, beyond being barred from our schools, that we are barred from the very churches of our birth,” Equality Rider and former BYU student Matt Kulisch said in a statement issued by Soulforce.

He told the Deseret Morning News on Monday that he had been “extremely excited” about taking the other Equality Riders to Temple Square and volunteering at the cannery. He told the newspaper he was “very disappointed” by the church’s decision.

Why would the Church bar these indviduals from Temple Square, the cannery, and the “very churches of [their] birth?” Well, this isn’t the first encounter the Church has had with Soulforce. And, Soulforce isn’t really interested in taking the Temple Square Tour and volunteering to can cherries at the cannery.

Just over a year ago, this same Soulforce group, including some of the same individuals unlawfully disrupted and protested on the BYU Campus in Provo Utah, which eventually ended in the arrest of some of the Soulforce group. I previously blogged about these protests here and here.

As the Deseret News article pointed out, the Church expects Soulforce to stage political protests advocating for their “gay rights” political ideology:

LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said the Equality Riders would be welcomed at Temple Square if they don’t demonstrate.

“Basically, everyone is welcome on Temple Square,” Trotter said. “We have millions who come here every year. The last thing we want to do is turn someone away.”

In this case, church officials chose to do so because they believe the members of the group will demonstrate. That belief is based, in large part, on the group’s actions last year at BYU, when the administration allowed the group on campus on the condition that they only engage in one-on-one conversations.

Five people were arrested when they began to speak to large groups. Another 24 were arrested the next day when they were told to stay off BYU property but instead staged a die-in on a campus corner.

“We don’t allow anybody to (demonstrate on Temple Square),” Trotter said. “If that’s the reason they’re coming, they’re not allowed to come. Given the group’s track record, we have reason to believe it was about advocacy and disruption.”

The church informed Soulforce via a letter signed by Brent Roberts, director of church headquarters facilities. The letter said “groups or persons with a history of demonstrating or protesting are asked not to enter Church properties.”

The letter pointed out that Equality Riders have been arrested at other schools this year. “In light of this, the Church asks that Soulforce members and others involved in its advocacy respect the Church’s rights and not enter Church property for any purpose. We hope that this request will be honored voluntarily without the need for enforcement.”

Given Soulforce’s well documented track record, I think the Church was entirely justified in asking them to stay away from Temple Square. A quick review of the Soulforce website confirms that the primary means of achieving their political objectives is to engage in civil disobedience that characterized their BYU trip last year.

Those who come to visit Temple Square, whether members of the Church or not, have every right not to have to confront gay activists on the Temple Grounds. Temple Square is not a public forum. It is private property, and the Church has every right to proscribe certain conduct by those invited to be on the grounds.

Of course, Soulforce has the opportunity to spread their message in other lawful and appropriate ways, as the News points out:

Kulisch said the Equality Riders, who arrived in Utah on Monday, will comply. The group plans to hike in Provo Canyon today and then give presentations tonight at a Salt Lake City church.

On Wednesday, Soulforce will give hour-long presentations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at UVSC, with a break for lunch. Then three or four BYU or former BYU students will conduct a panel discussion at the Provo City Library at 7 p.m.

Thursday, the Equality Riders will march around the perimeter of the BYU campus from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in what they’re calling a “Walls of Jericho” activity, then hold a rally at Kiwanis Park, 820 N. 1100 East.

I think it completely appropriate that Soulforce give their presentations where they have been invited, or in traditional public forums such as Kiwanis Park, or at public libraries. It is equally appropriate that the Church ban them from Temple Square given their focus and history on disruption and illegal protest on private property. It will be interesting to see how these events will play out over the next few days in Salt Lake City and in Provo. My hope is that Soulforce will obey the rules, follow the law, and protest lawfully where they have been invited to do so. I further hope that they will be treated with respect, and that in turn they will respect the beliefs of others with opposing views.

A few of photos of last year’s protest at BYU where some in the Soulforce group were arrested for their unlawful protest at BYU (right click on some photos to view full size):

Update 3/21/07

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