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Utah snowboarders demand equal access to public slopes

August 13, 2014 by Nicandro Iannacci


SnowboardingAre skiers and snowboarders equal under the 14th Amendment? That was the question at hand in a federal courtroom this week.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson heard oral arguments over a request by Alta Ski Area to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Wasatch Equality and four snowboarders against the resort’s ban on snowboarding. The plaintiffs argue that the ban violates the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

“Discrimination without any rational basis,” the complaint says, "perpetuates inequality by creating, fostering, and encouraging skier-versus-snowboarder attitudes that are hostile and divisive in a world where skiers and snowboarders, as a general matter, share the mountains, including those on all other public land, in harmony and without issue.”

Knowing they would be violating the ban, the four snowboarders bought tickets to Alta with plans to sue. On January 12, they were denied access to chairlifts after buying tickets. One boarder managed to ascend the mountain with a “split board,” but was accosted by resort personnel before using the slope. The group filed its suit just three days later.

Pointing to the numerous similarities between skiing and snowboarding, including the use of chairlifts and equipment attachable to the feet, plaintiffs say the ban is simply not justified.

“Alta’s anti-snowboarder policy and snowboarding ban does nothing to advance skiers’ access to or the benefit from Alta’s unique public land—it merely excludes snowboarders from enjoying the same access to and benefit from that federal land,” the complaint says.

Citing historical tensions between skiers and snowboarders stemming from differences in class and culture, the snowboarders suggest that the ban actually stems from discriminatory animus against their community. (A similar argument is asserted by same-sex marriage advocates.)

When pressured to open the resort to snowboarders in the late 1980s, Chic Morton, Alta’s general manager at the time, responded to requests by saying, “Anyone who uses the words ‘rip,’ ‘tear,’ or ‘shred’ will never be welcome at Alta.” On a separate occasion, Morton said that “as long as I’m alive, snowboarders will never be allowed at Alta.”

Alta rejects such an argument. In oral arguments on Monday, attorney Robert Rice argued that snowboarders shouldn’t receive special constitutional protection because choosing to board is a choice—unlike immutable characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation.

“The 14th Amendment does not contain a right to snowboard,” Rice said.

Indeed, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Benson “appeared skeptical” of the snowboarders’ equal-protection claim. When pressed for precedent, attorney Jonathan Schofield admitted the lack of supporting case law but suggested some cases could be stretched to apply.

What’s more, nearly 1,800 of Alta’s 2,130 acres are under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service, also a named defendant in the Wasatch suit. A special-use permit negotiated with the federal agency says Alta “reserves the right to exclude any type of skiing device that they deem creates an unnecessary risk to other skiers and/or the user of the device, or any device they deem causes undue damages to the quality of the snow, or is not consistent with the business management decisions.”

Alta argues that, because it is a private business and because of the USFS permit, it is allowed to prohibit behavior it deems unsafe. USFS agrees, warning that courts could become “the ultimate decider of what activities are allowed on federal lands.”

At the same time, the permit says the designated land must “remain open to the public for all lawful purposes.” Plaintiffs suggest the two provisions are irreconcilable.

"This case is not about equipment, it's not about skiing and snowboarding," Schofield said. "It's about deciding you don't like a group of people, you don't want to associate with that group of people, and you're excluding them."

Alta, located in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of only three ski resorts in North America that bans snowboarding. But the other resorts—Deer Valley in Utah and Mad River Glen in Vermont—do not reside on public land, making the current suit unique.

Plaintiffs have asked Benson for a declaration that the Alta’s snowboarding ban violates the 14th Amendment and an order permanently barring the resort from reinstating such policies.

There is no deadline for the judge to rule on the motion to dismiss.

Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.

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