- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to block the federal government from leasing to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a site where more than 100 Mormons died in 1856.

The ACLU contends that the government converted Martin’s Cove into a religious site and gave the church authority to place unconstitutional restrictions on visitors.

“It’s a violation of the First Amendment, and specifically it entangles church and state because the government has entered into a partnership with the LDS church,” said Mark Lopez, an ACLU attorney in New York.

The 25-year lease, signed with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in October, gives the church oversight of about 11/2 square miles of land in central Wyoming. The church pays $16,000 a year.

In October 1856, a company of Mormon pioneers, mostly poor European converts, was trapped there by an early snowstorm as they neared the end of a 1,300-mile trek to Utah. They sought shelter in the cove, where many died. Rescuers from Salt Lake City wrapped the dead in blankets and buried them under piles of rock.

Lloyd Larsen, a Wyoming official for the LDS Church, said that Martin’s Cove should be accessible to and appreciated by all.

“Without the church’s willingness to make this remote area accessible to visitors and tell the story of those who died there, it would still be isolated and unappreciated,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday on behalf of four Wyoming residents and the Western Land Exchange Project, which advocates public access to decisions about federal land. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and BLM Director Kathleen Clarke are named as defendants.

One plaintiff, Susan Wozny, said that when she visited Martin’s Cove, LDS guides repeatedly asked her about her religious affiliation and prevented her from accessing part of the trail, saying it was “sacred” and “hallowed ground.”

The Mormon church originally wanted to buy 1,640 acres of land at Martin’s Cove, but public opposition to that idea led to the lease compromise. Congress approved the lease in 2003, and President Bush signed the bill later that year.

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