People of faith win in another equal access dispute
DOUGLAS, ARIZONA – Alice Benson, the organizer of the March for Jesus in Douglas, Arizona, would not be denied the same access to public property as other parade leaders.
When the city officials told her the March for Jesus (MFJ) would not be able to use the streets of Douglas as other parades do – Cinco de Mayo, Christmas, and Fourth of July parades, for instance – she turned to the Alliance Defense Fund.
"I believe as Christians, we cannot be afraid to go public and fight for our rights," Benson said. "If we continue doing nothing, we’re going to lose all our rights. We have lost too much already because we didn’t speak up. We owe it to our children to speak up now."
The city told Benson on April 19 that the march could use its usual parade route, but because of "staffing constraints," there would be no traffic control for the march. According to Michael J. Ortega, the Douglas city manager, marchers could only use the sidewalks. The Alliance Defense Fund sent a demand letter to the city, explaining the court precedents supporting Benson’s request. A few days later, Ortega reversed himself and said that the march could be held on the requested parade route.
Now, the march will go forward on May 18, 2002, as originally hoped.
Benjamin W. Bull, chief counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said the city’s response demonstrates the continuing need for people of faith to stand up for their legal rights.
"People like Alice Benson are an example of how people of faith can respond when civil authorities want to keep ‘religious people’ out of the public square. The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and Protestants cannot be kept from using public property on the same terms as other groups. They cannot be treated like second class citizens by civil governments," Bull said.
"Private religious speech, such as March for Jesus, is protected under the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment," Bull continued. "The government may not discriminate against private speech in a public forum on account of the speaker’s views without a compelling state interest. The public streets at issue are a designated public forum. No one but an extremist could say the march violates the Establishment Clause. It’s ironic, but the city’s prohibition of the march shows government hostility to religion. This means prohibiting the march violates the Establishment Clause."
"We are pleased that the city understood our arguments," Bull said.