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PARK CITY AIMS TO REACH DEAL WITH CONGREGATION OVER BANNER

The city says it will try to reach a compromise with a local church that wants to hang a 100-square-foot banner advertising its Easter Sunday services over the gateway into town.

The Park City Presbyterian Church, which rents a city-owned building for its services, is challenging a municipal sign ordinance in a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday.The 2-year-old congregation is receiving legal assistance from the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based group usually described as a conservative religious-rights organization, in its fight. It is associated from time to time with various controversies in Utah.

Pastor Phil Stogner said his church's 4-by-25-foot announcement has as much a claim on the prominent banner locale as any other community group. But Park City Attorney Jodi Hoffman says local statute dictates the spot - over Park Avenue south of Kearns Boulevard - be reserved generally for communitywide events that bring visitors to Park City's resort-based economy.

"I don't think a Presbyterian church service is going to attract many people from, say, Spain," said Hoffman, who added that the city might try to negotiate a settlement, however.

"They're saying they want to use a forum that, in our minds, isn't appropriate for their type of advertising," she said. "But we'd like to kind of diminish the rhetoric and extricate ourselves from a fight we don't really want to be in . . . we'll probably find a way to accommodate them."

The space currently is taken by a banner welcoming members of the International Olympic Committee, who are in Utah this week to peruse facilities that games boosters hope will draw the 2002 Winter Olympics. This winter the spot featured banners promoting a host of local ski events as well as the Sundance Film Festival.

Organizations typically apply on a first-come, first-served basis for the space, paying a $35 fee to offset the cost incurred by the city, whose workers hang the permitted banner on public-utility poles.

Stogner said he disagrees with a city law that puts criteria on what kinds of banners are allowed, insisting that his church is a tourist attraction, too.

"We get quite a few visitors who are delighted to find a Presbyterian Church up here," said Stogner, who moved to the area two years ago from South Carolina.

He said the statute in question contains "some vagueness that's a little disturbing."

Hoffman said she was irritated by the manner in which the issue surfaced.

On Thursday, Springville attorney Matthew M.F. Hilton, president of the Utah Chapter of the Rutherford Institute, filed the lawsuit in Salt Lake City. On Friday, a press release from the group's international headquarters in Charlottesville, Va., was faxed to numerous news outlets in Utah.

But Hilton did not return phone calls to news reporters, and Hoffman said Hilton had also failed to respond to messages from her.

The Rutherford Institute in 1991 helped force a change in a Murray zoning ordinance that prohibited a church group from congregating in a residential area. In 1992 it joined forces with Utah clerics in support of state anti-abortion statutes. Last year the group helped an Ogden woman win the right to a set of license plates that say "THNXGOD," overturning a state Tax Commission rule against mentioning deities in vanity plates.

And in 1994 the Rutherford Institute engaged in a battle with the Alpine School District in American Fork on behalf of a couple who didn't want their third-grade daughter subjected to psychological testing.