Controversial law highlights growing culture clash in Utah's land of Dixie
LA VERKIN, Utah - Almost every pew in city hall is filled with locals tonight. The air inside the former Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building, which serves as the municipal center for this small desert town in southern Utah, buzzes with anticipation.
One by one, neighbors step up to the microphone in front of the town council. The topic they address is not a proposed housing project, new taxes, nor any number of issues small towns grapple with in the rural West.
"The world is simply a better place because of the United Nations," says Duane Kessler, a local contractor. Jeers and hisses fill the room.
"What you have done with this ordinance is obliterate our Constitution," Kessler continues. More hissing. "Our freedoms that you seek to protect from the U.N. are destroyed by this new law."
The "law" Kessler refers to was passed by the council one week earlier on Independence Day. It establishes La Verkin as a "U.N. Free Zone," and requires that all United Nations supporters affix a sign to their homes and businesses that says, "U.N. work conducted here." So-called "U.N. Agents" (i.e. anyone who supports the U.N., or affiliates with its supporters) must also file annual activity reports with the council and pay unspecified fees. Violators of the decree can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor.
It might be easy to dismiss tonight's flap as an anomaly. But it isn't the only headline-grabbing controversy sponsored by southern Utah's right-wing conservatives in recent months. Last summer, La Verkin's next-door neighbor, Virgin, catapulted itself into international media limelight when its town council approved an ordinance requiring the head of every household to own a gun and ammunition. "We wanted to send a clear message so that the world knows how we feel about gun control," says Virgin's mayor, Jay Lee.
Then, on July 10 of this year, a fight nearly broke out during a town meeting in Escalante, 125 miles northeast of La Verkin, when the town council considered a similar gun ordinance. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that five men in cowboy hats rushed towards Escalante resident Patrick Diehl, the town's most outspoken environmentalist (HCN, 5/24/99: Greens not welcome in Escalante), while he was speaking against the ordinance. The proposed measure was tabled indefinitely, apparently a victim of the prevailing notion that the city should stay out of its residents' personal choices - including gun ownership.
The next night, the Washington City Council, 20 miles west of La Verkin, approved a resolution calling for a repeal of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The resolution, pushed by the Friends for America, calls for a return to the days when state legislators chose U.S. senators.
Some locals say that the recent anti-government outbursts pale in comparison to the high-profile band of anti-Semitic skinheads led by Johnny Bangerter, who headquartered in La Verkin during the mid-1990s. Their main goal was to take over aptly-named Zion National Park and convert it into an Aryan Nations homeland.
But a few southern Utahns believe the recent anti-U.N. brouhaha belongs in a different league.
"We've always been able to say that the fringe elements in southern Utah are truly on the fringe," says Logan Hebner, a resident of nearby Rockville at the entrance to Zion. "But now it's the mayor and city council in La Verkin, the supposed pillars of the community, who are campaigning for these far-out issues."
It's no longer "them," Hebner says. "Now it's 'us'."
Crowding out the far right?Some observers believe the recent clashes are an outgrowth of growth. In the southwest corner of the state, the population of Washington County has nearly doubled every decade for the last 30 years, from 13,669 to 90,354, and most of the new people come from somewhere else.
Many come to the region for its mild winters, affordable homes and publicly owned red rock scenery. The majority hail from the Wasatch Front and bring conservative values, says Ken Sizemore, a planner for the St. George-based Five County Association of Governments. But some newcomers bring more liberal views.
"It will take another generation of move-ins to alter who wields the political power," says Sizemore. "For now, (the power) still rests among the descendants of families who settled the area."
La Verkin resident and environmentalist Dick Hingson says he felt targeted by the U.N. ordinance. "The ordinance only vaguely identifies 'agents of the U.N.' as its targets. It seems likely that they meant anyone affiliated with an environmental group or federal land management agency," he says.
Pat Kessler, who recently posted a giant sign on her house in support of the U.N., says that the establishment seems afraid of change.
"These people are happy to sell their land and make money off of newcomers, but then they complain about the influences we bring," says Kessler, who moved to the area from San Antonio, Texas, nine years ago because she felt it would be a good place to raise her son.
La Verkin's spokesperson, Tracie Sullivan, says federal policies, not newcomers, catalyzed the town council to pass the U.N. ordinance. President Clinton's surprise 1997 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument started a "ripple effect" of local anger over land-use issues, she says. "People saw not only property rights being threatened but also their whole lifestyle and culture."
Sullivan says that the lifestyle-threatening Endangered Species Act (ESA) resulted from the 1972 U.N. Council on International Trade of Endangered Species. "It doesn't matter if there's a direct connection or not," Sullivan says when pressed to identify the relationship between the ESA and the monument declaration. "The point is that decisions are being made around U.N. tables that are then brought home."
Support for the La Verkin U.N. ordinance radiates from residents with ties to the John Birch Society, the Libertarian Party and the now-defunct People for the USA! But its author is Daniel New, a resident of Iredell, Texas. New became enraged at the U.N. when his son, Mike, was dishonorably discharged from the Army after refusing to wear a U.N. insignia on his uniform in 1995. In 1999, New devised the U.N. free-zone ordinance and started shopping around.
In June 2000, he learned about Virgin, after its town council passed the gun ordinance, and he sent his draft ordinance to Virgin's mayor, Jay Lee.
Lee passed the document to Dan Howard, his brother-in-law and La Verkin's mayor. Howard gained support for the ordinance from three of the five city councilors. At one public meeting, councilor Al Snow held up a U.S. map printed in the New American, the John Birch Society magazine. Snow pointed to a sea of red indicating environmental protection areas.
"Everything in red ... is controlled directly or indirectly by the U.N.," he asserted. "In Oregon they just turned off the water to farmers because of a minnow or something É We may only have two years of freedom left in this country."
Unintended consequencesWhile the U.N.'s influence over Western land issues is debatable, the constitutionality of the ordinance is not, according to Jake Adams.
One of La Verkin's four part-time police officers, Adams was the second of two officers who resigned shortly after the council's July 4th vote. Adams, who kept his day job with the Washington County Sheriff's Department, believes the new regulation violates constitutionally protected civil rights. "I don't want to be put in the situation where I have to either enforce this law or uphold the Constitution," Adams says.
The resignations were followed by denunciations of the ordinance from the John Birch Society and the LDS Church-owned Deseret News. Unflattering newspaper and radio reports were broadcast from as far as Australia.
Amid the bad press, La Verkin city officials asked Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff for his take on the ordinance. "You have a responsibility to protect the rights of all of your citizens, not just those who agree with you," Shurtleff told the council.
On July 18, the council reconvened to vote for a scaled-back statute with the hotly contested enforcement clauses removed. The now-toothless statement remains, approved by the same 3-2 margin.
While Shurtleff was pleased that the council dodged a potentially devastating legal battle, he mused about the bigger picture of Utah's reputation throughout the world as it heads toward the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
"It seems like Utah has had a lot of scrutiny recently with the Olympics scandal, the Tom Green polygamy trial and the gun ordinances," Shurtleff says. "And now there's this one."
Lin Alder writes from Springdale, Utah.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- La Verkin city offices, 435/635-2581;
- Five County Association of Governments, 435/673-3548.