Judge to decide fate of Alta’s snowboarding ban

Posted at 7:24 PM, Aug 11, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-12 09:59:54-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge will decide if Alta's decades-long ban on snowboarding violates the U.S. Constitution.

A group calling itself Wasatch Equality is suing Alta Ski Area and the U.S. Forest Service, claiming the ban violates snowboarders' right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. On Monday, a judge heard arguments over whether the lawsuit should be immediately dismissed.

"I recognize this is an unusual case," Jon Schofield, the attorney for Wasatch Equality, told U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson. "Especially when the Fourteenth Amendment has been applied to such important cases as race and gender discrimination."

The Fourteenth Amendment has been cited in cases of race, gender, national origin -- and most recently cases for marriage equality. In arguments, Schofield suggested that snowboarders were considered by Alta to be "undesirable."

"Fortunately, we have these great courts where we can come and redress these laws where people simply say, 'We don't want you around us,'" said Rick Alden, a plaintiff in the case. "Even though this is public land and the device you're on is considered an equal device to every other device we permit on the mountain."

Alta insisted that it does not discriminate against people -- it just doesn't allow snowboards on the mountain.

"I don't think we (discriminate)," Alta General Manager Onno Wieringa told FOX 13 outside of court. "It seems to me that we don't. It's not about discrimination."

Acting U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen also asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service. She said the government has not coerced nor encouraged Alta's ban.

Federal government attorneys also noted that the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to restrict certain activities on certain lands. Judge Benson took particular interest in that point.

"There are restrictions against bait fishing in certain government lands. Do we have an equal protection clause there by the bait fisherman? They're treated differently," he said. "All equipment restrictions… is treating people differently. You can't ride your bicycle on the freeway. Do you have an equal protection challenge against the government for that restriction?"

Schofield insisted Alta was discriminating against a type of person, not just a piece of equipment.

"If you put a snowboard on, you're not welcome," he said outside of court. "My clients, it's who they are. It's what they do, and as we argued today, we don't think there's a rational basis to exclude them because it's what they do."

Alta did allow snowboarding for a brief time in the 1980s, but it has been skiers-only ever since. Most resorts who lease Forest Service land do allow snowboarding. Deer Valley is the only other ski resort in Utah to ban snowboarding -- but it is a private resort.

Judge Benson took the case under advisement, promising a ruling in the near future.