Earlier this month, the mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, Erin Mendenhall, announced that tickets for the Mormon Church’s General Conference would “double as a ticket for public transportation,” allowing attendees to use trains and buses for free.
�Tickets for Transit is coming!�Beginning April 4, every ticket for @Ch_JesusChrist General Conference will double as a ticket for public transportation. We’re in final negotiations and both sides are committed to ensuring over 100k people can @RideUTA. ��� #slc #utpol
— SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall (@slcmayor) March 3, 2020
While we should all support free public transportation in general, this perk was clearly geared at Mormons attending a major Mormon event. Because of that, it’s arguably an endorsement of religion. (A popular religion in the state, no doubt, but religion nonetheless.) It’s not like the perk extends to non-Mormons or anyone else not attending that religious conference.
Now the Freedom From Religion Foundation is looking for answers about how this dubious partnership happened:
“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.”
… 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…
FFRF has made an open records request for details about how this partnership came to be.
No one’s trying to end the perk, by the way. The city could easily just say everyone can ride public transportation for free that weekend instead of linking it to the Mormon event. It’s an easy problem to resolve. The question is how the city wants to respond.