House Approves Legislation To Sell Federal Land In Wyoming To Mormon Church

AU's Lynn Says Land Deal to Benefit One Religious Group is Unconstitutional

Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the House of Representatives for approving a bill that would require the federal government to sell over 900 acres of federal land in Wyoming to the Mormon Church. The measure passed on a voice vote this afternoon.

H.R. 4103, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah), would sell 940 acres of land in Wyoming to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Under the terms of the legislation, no other parties would be permitted to make offers on the property, which is currently under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Americans United said the proposal raises serious constitutional questions and should have been defeated.

"This bill is a sweetheart deal for one faith tradition," said AU's Lynn. "If the Constitution means anything, it means that Congress can't single out one religion for special treatment."

The church has a special interest in the land because of Mormon history. In 1856, a group of Mormon settlers died on the land -- known as Martin's Cove -- after a snowstorm blanketed the area. As a result, the church now considers the area sacred.

AU's Lynn said there are several reasons why Hansen's proposal to sell Martin's Cove violates the First Amendment:

* The U.S. Supreme Court has said Congress cannot give benefits to religious institutions through "a special and unusual Act of the legislature." The Martin's Cove legislation gives benefits solely to one religious group by selling land in a non-competitive process.

* The Supreme Court has ruled that government action is unconstitutional if its purpose is religious, not secular. The Mormon Church wants to buy the land because it considers Martin's Cove to be sacred. As such, there is no secular purpose for the sale since it can only be intended to benefit the Mormon religion.

* The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from passing legislation that a reasonable observer would perceive as favoring a particular religion. A reasonable observer would not view passage of this bill as anything other than favoring the Mormon Church.

AU's Lynn said the bill undermines basic constitutional principles.

"This bill would sell a national site to a religious group for a religious purpose," Lynn said. "The First Amendment requires government neutrality on religion, not special treatment for certain religious groups. The Senate should do what the House did not -- reject this legislation."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.