DULUTH, Minn. — A federal court issued an order Tuesday that prevents the city of Duluth from enforcing a First Amendment ban on people desiring to share their faith at a city park during the “Bentleyville Tour of Lights” event. Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed suit against the ban in November after police told two men to leave the event last year based upon the objections of an event official who called their views “religious crap.”
“A city cannot ban the First Amendment in a public park just because event officials don’t like the message that a person is sharing,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Jonathan Scruggs. “The court made the right decision in suspending the ban so that people can share their faith in a non-disruptive manner at this year’s event, which is open to the public.”
Peter Scott and a friend were speaking with passers-by and handing out religious literature at the 2010 Bentleyville Tour of Lights when they were approached by a police officer who asked them to leave even though they were conducting themselves in a non-disruptive manner. When they returned at a later time, several officials with the non-profit event began to harass them for their beliefs.
After Scott tried to talk about Jesus with one of the officials, the official said, “If you don’t back down, we will help you meet him quicker.” When Scott attempted to explain his free speech rights protected by the First Amendment, the official said, “Well, it’s my freedom of speech as well to tell you that you are imposing on other people’s beliefs. They don’t want to hear religious proselytizing; they don’t want to hear religious crap.”
Because of the harassment the two men were receiving, they called police, but the event ended before any resolution could be reached. In later correspondence, the city maintained its right to support the decisions of the private, non-profit “Tour of Lights” event officials to ban First Amendment activity whenever those officials decide they don’t like the viewpoint being shared even though the event is open to the public and held in a public park.
In its order based upon the recommendations of a magistrate judge, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota prohibited the city from banning free speech and explained that “the agreement between the City and the non-profit expressly required the non-profit to keep the park free and open to members of the public.”
“If the governmental efforts to protect funeral attendees from inflammatory picketers cannot survive intermediate scrutiny,” the court wrote, referring to a recent federal appellate court decision, “it is unlikely that the City could justify restricting the Plaintiffs’ activities, which by all accounts, are peaceful and respectful.”
Minnesota attorney Mark Peterson, one of nearly 2,100 attorneys in the ADF alliance, is serving as local counsel in the case, Jankowski v. City of Duluth.
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.