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Remembering Brian Barnard

by on September 21, 2012

No flag is flying at half mast at the Capitol this month, but one of Utah’s foremost defenders of the Constitution has died.

Over the years, I interviewed Brian Barnard, who died peacefully in his sleep earlier this month, a dozen times. For a guy who infuriated so many people, he was anything but a firebrand. Barnard would gently explain the complexities of whatever civil rights case he was pursuing to dense reporters, judges, panhandlers and politicians.

When the opposition bent and subverted the facts, Barnard never accused anyone of lying. Instead, he would say, “That statement is something other than the truth.”

I was always amused at how much Barnard annoyed Utah’s conservative legislators when you consider he likely treasured their oft-invoked Constitution far more than they did. Maybe it was because Barnard applied the principles of the sacred Founding Fathers to bums, women, Indian tribes other groups Utahns considered outsiders.

Barnard aided the Summum religion (which has a pyramid on SLC’s westside and believes in mummification of the dead) when it wanted its sacred Seven Aphorisms to have the same visibility in public spaces as the Ten Commandments. He successfully worked with atheists to block the placement of 10-foot crosses on public property along Utah’s highways by arguing that annoying principle of separation of church and state—in Utah of all places. And he found time to defend the Girl Scouts’ cookie sales in Lehi from being banned under a poorly written anti-solicitation law.

One evening years ago, I was sitting near Barnard at a Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Commission hearing on revamping—yet again—Utah’s liquor laws. At one point, speaking as a taxpayer, Barnard advised against a certain modification. “The Legislature can do anything it wants to, of course,” he allowed. “But you’ll just bring me a lot of business.”

At a legislative committee meeting later, a rookie lawmaker suggested his panel run the liquor-law changes by Barnard to save themselves a lot of trouble—since they regularly paid Barnard’s bills when he won in court. The innocent’s reward was icy silence from his colleagues. He was, of course, correct—his suggestion would have saved them a lot of heartburn.

I’ve begun collecting news items that I call “Things that Would Make Brian Barnard Smile.” Here’s one, an American Civil Liberties Union suit defending a non-denominational church’s constitutional right to use public sidewalks to pass out literature challenging Mormon beliefs during the open house for the city’s new LDS Church temple.

The Utah Legal Clinic that Barnard founded issued an apt epitaph on his passing:

A skilled attorney, Brian spent his career advocating for those who lacked a choice or the power to do so on their own. Among others, Brian represented homeless panhandlers, women denied access to a myriad of institutions on account of their gender, members of unpopular faiths, prisoners forced to live in deplorable conditions and victims of police brutality. We live in a more just world for his having been with us.”

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