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The Salt Lake City Council could be violating the First Amendment if it tries to officially influence the decision to exclude Mormons Building Bridges from the Days of '47 Parade, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.
While the council's intention to send a letter standing up for the group dedicated to improving Mormons' relationships with the gay community may be understandable, it's still "a bridge too far" for a governmental body to try to influence a private event, ACLU leaders wrote in a letter Tuesday.
"Under the First Amendment, government officials are not allowed to use their official power to attempt to sway or select the speech or association of private citizens, no matter what the cause," wrote the ACLU's executive director, Karen McCreary, and legal director John Mejia.
Council members considered boycotting the Days of '47 Parade, set for July 24, after organizers decided Mormons Building Bridges was too controversial to march in the state's biggest parade. The event celebrates the 1847 arrival of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley.
The council instead decided last week to write a letter formally asking parade organizers to reverse their position, citing the city's LDS Church-endorsed nondiscrimination policy.
The council was still reviewing the policy with the city attorney and hadn't contacted Days of '47 organizers as of Tuesday, said Chairman Charlie Luke.
"It was never our intent to send a heavy-handed, threatening letter," he said.
Days of '47 spokesman Greg James pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in 1995, when it ruled Boston St. Patrick's Day parade organizers weren't required to allow a gay and lesbian group to march in the parade.
"The ACLU is correct that the government shouldn't use its position to try to create a bully pulpit for any advocacy group on any issue, not when it's a free speech event," he said. Parade organizers haven't been in touch with the ACLU.
"The challenge is, once you let an advocacy group in … you have no standing to say, 'Well, I'm not going to let other groups in,'" James said. "Then the parade becomes point and counterpoint instead of celebrating our message … which is about the founding of the state and pioneers coming here."
Mormons Building Bridges leaders have said their group works hard to avoid being political.
The ACLU wrote that if Salt Lake City council members disagree with the parade's decision, it would be "perfectly appropriate" for them to skip the festivities in protest.
But using "official tactics, like sending a letter on council letterhead that mentions municipal code," could put the body on the wrong side of the First Amendment, warned the ACLU.
"After all, the First Amendment is at its strongest and is most important," the letter states, "when protecting speech that the government disapproves of or that is otherwise controversial."
Tribune reporter Chris Smart contributed to this story.