ACLU/Western Lands settle case with Mormon Church )
At issue was the Church's control of public land in Wyoming June 12, 2006


A case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Western Lands and others has been settled.

Martin's Cove, near the Sweetwater River southwest of Casper Wyoming, is situated along the four major historic westward migration routes: the Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer, and Pony Express Trails.

The site has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. Part of the history of the site is a story of Mormon pioneers traveling west with handcarts who were trapped in a severe winter storm in 1856 and perished near the Cove. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) owns a ranch adjacent to the Cove and, through a 25-year lease granted by Congress in 2004, gained virtual control of the public land where the Cove is located.

In March 2005, the national office of the ACLU represented the Western Lands Project (then Western Land Exchange Project) and four individual plaintiffs—including two descendents of Mormon pioneers—in a suit against the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management, the agency with jurisdiction over Martin’s Cove. The premise of the case was that Interior had effectively ceded management of the federal land to the LDS and thus violated the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state. At issue were such problems as signage that made it appear the public land was Church-owned, and proselytizing by church members. An article in the Deseret Morning News on June 8 covered the settlement.

To see the text of the settlement please go to:http://www.aclu.org/religion/govtfu nding/25806lgl20060607.html

Western Land’s interest in the Martin's Cove issue was consistent with our mission to keep public lands in public ownership and control. The BLM allowed a religious organization to control interpretation of an historic site on public land. While we believe LDS members should be free to experience an important part of their religious history at the Cove, we objected to the pervasiveness of the Church- sponsored message, presented to the exclusion of other interpretations of history on the non-Church lands.

Resolution of the case included:

  • Creation of visitation guidelines that must be posted on the site and on the BLM’s website.

  • Clearly marked public parking and public access that is separate from access to the neighboring Mormon Handcart Visitors Center.
  • Installation of a kiosk at the beginning of the public access trail that provides info on Martin’s Cove without reference to the Visitors Center.

  • Removal of references to the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center on the BLM interpretive displays. Also, elimination of the co-mingling of BLM and LDS logos on signs at the site.

The Plaintiffs are allowed to re-file if the points of agreement in the settlement are found not to be followed to the Plaintiffs satisfaction.

Thank you to all of our members and supporters for your interest in these issues!

Janine, Chris and Joanne

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