ACLU Wins Open Access for All Visitors to Martin’s Cove National Historic Site in Wyoming

Affiliate: ACLU of Wyoming
June 7, 2006 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Wyoming
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CHEYENNE, WY – The American Civil Liberties Union today announced a

settlement granting unfettered access to the Martin’s Cove National Historic

Site, which had been leased to the Church of Latter-Day Saints by the federal

government. Prior to the settlement the only way to reach the area was through

the church’s privately owned and operated Visitor’s Center.

“The Church of Latter-Day Saints provides an important service by maintaining

this National Historic Place,” said ACLU attorney Mark Lopez, who with Megan

Hayes of Laramie, WY, brought the case on behalf of individuals who objected to

the overt religious use of the land. “However, as we say about government-funded

soup kitchens run by the Salvation Army, safeguards have to be in place to make

sure that religion is not spooned out with the meal. I think the agreement we

have negotiated provides that safeguard.”

The agreement provides for a separate access point to Martin’s Cove and

Devil’s Gate for visitors who do not want to go through the Mormon Handcart

Visitor’s Center, complete with signage and a parking lot provided by the

federal Bureau of Land Management. The BLM, in consultation with church

officials, have also adopted visitation guidelines patterned after guidelines

that govern other federal property open to the public. The church is prohibited

from using the property as an exclusive platform to promote it religious views.

Additionally, the bureau will take primary responsibility for distributing

materials explaining the historical significance of the site and any

interpretive signs that have religious content will be removed and all signs

placed by the government will be clearly labeled as such.

“Both the separate entry and the removal of religious signs were essential if

the public was to have any sense that this land is held in common by all

Americans, regardless of religious belief,” said Christopher Krupp, a Staff

Attorney at the Western Lands Project, an ACLU partner in reaching the


Congress had approved a long-term lease agreement with the church that gave

them near total control over the management of National Historic Site.

The plaintiffs in Western Land Exchange Project et al, v. Norton have common

historical interest in the leased land and surrounding area, the ACLU said in

legal papers. Each objected to what they believe was the misuse of federal lands

by a religious organization to establish sole control over the land and to


Martin’s Cove, a registered National Historic Place, is located approximately

55 miles southwest of Casper, at the confluence of the Oregon, California,

Mormon, and Pony Express Trails, all major migratory routes. The site is

considered significant to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints because Mormon

pioneers traveling west in the Martin Handcart Company took refuge there during

a winter storm in 1856 in which more than 200 people perished.

Participants in the case included Green River residents Jennifer Sorensen and

Kevin Holdsworth, who are descendents of the original pioneers, married and are

both professors at Western Wyoming Community College; Susan M. Wozny of Laramie,

who was repeatedly asked by Mormon guides about her religious affiliation and

was limited in her access to the park during a visit; William Young of Medicine

Bow, a long time Wyoming resident and a Quaker who felt the Mormons had been

singled out for special treatment by the government; and the Western Lands

Project (formerly the Western Lands Exchange Project) which fights the

privatization of public lands and advocates for public access to decision making

about federal lands.

More than 100,000 people visit Martin’s Cove annually. All visitors to the

site have had to enter by way of the Mormon Visitor’s Center located on a nearby

ranch owned by the Church. It is estimated that 85 to 90 percent of these

visitors are Mormon.

The ACLU noted that the lease agreement gave the church the right to exclude

visitors based on their viewpoints and expression of those opinions. The lease

agreement also did not require the church to provide access to groups presenting

a competing, non-sectarian version of historic events at Martin’s Cove.

The settlement is online at: www­

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