The mayor of Salt Lake City must reconsider a problematic deal that offers free bus rides for members of the Mormon church, contends the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A local resident reported to the state/church watchdog that Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall recently announced an agreement between the city, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Utah Transit Authority that would allow people to use a ticket to the church’s general conference also as a ticket for public transportation.
A partnership that allows members of the church to ride the bus for free during their attendance at this church event is a serious constitutional violation, FFRF asserts.
“While expanding transit accessibility and affordability for Salt Lake City residents is an admirable endeavor, extending this benefit to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in order to facilitate their attendance at a church event shows favoritism to Mormons and excludes the nonreligious and members of all other religions,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes. “This is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
It is well-settled law that the Establishment Clause requires the government remain neutral on religion, FFRF emphasizes. Offering a special financial benefit to members of the church and to aid the church in holding a religious event sends the message to non-Mormons that they are outsiders in their own community. Additionally, this deal violates Utah’s civil rights law, which guarantees equal access to public accommodations “without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, pregnancy, religion, ancestry or national origin.”
In order to respect the constitutional rights of all Salt Lake City residents, the government cannot extend a financial benefit to the members of a specific church to support a church event.
“As mayor, Mendenhall serves a diverse population that consists of not only Mormons, but also other religious and nonreligious citizens,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor remarks. “We are confident that the city will agree it must be evenhanded and avoid any appearance of bias toward some citizens, or hostility toward others.”
FFRF has submitted an official request to the mayor for open records relating to the agreement and urges the city to discontinue any policy that favors one religious group over other citizens.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including hundreds in Utah. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.