I recently wrote on these pages that there were two legal victories for Christians and other religious believers. Those decisions were issued the day after the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision. However, a few days after those victories, we are reminded as regular readers of Mere Comments know, that the only group in the United States whose rights can regularly be oppressed and harassed are Christian believers. A Constitution might not always seem to say what it does say. As we learned from Supreme Court Chief Injustice John Roberts last week, what might seem a clear meaning of the constitutional text to us might not always be. You might think that you have a constitutional right to share your faith with others. You might even think you can distribute a Bible to your neighbors, or you could even reasonably think that you have a constitutional right to go into public venues to share your faith and distribute a Bible. But alas, in today’s America, it takes persistence and good lawyering to exercise one’s fundamental constitutional rights.
Brian Johnson is an evangelical Christian believer from Wisconsin. He distributes Bibles at the Twin Cities Sodomy Pride Festival in Minnesota. He has distributed Bibles at the annual event since 1995 (kudos to him!). The Twin Cities Sodomy Pride Festival is a big deal: an estimated 300,000 merrymakers come to celebrate their sexuality at this event, and so it is a strategic opportunity for Christian witness. Mr. Johnson had no problem with the event organizers until 2009. In 2009, the event organizers refused to rent him a booth after the organizers heard his views on homosexuality (it took that long?). However, this was not a problem for the intrepid Mr. Johnson and his family, who have been described as “anti-gay.” They were going to walk through the event distributing Bibles wearing yellow t-shirts that said something quite radical: “Free Bibles.” However, upon doing so, the organizers said that Mr. Johnson and his family were not welcome, and a police officer allegedly told Mr. Johnson that the park was “private property” that day, and Mr. Johnson was arrested when he didn’t leave. Of course, the charges were dropped as a public park is never “private property,” even when homosexual, lesbian, bisexuals and transgendered revelers are present.
Sodomy Pride organizers then sued the Park Board in 2010, seeking an injunction requiring that the Park Board prohibit Mr. Johnson from returning to the event. U.S. District Judge John Tunehim ruled that a broad restriction based on the content of Mr. Johnson’s speech would violate his rights under the First Amendment, and so Mr. Johnson returned to distribute Bibles.
For the current year’s events, the Park Board and event organizers negotiated an arrangement where the Park Board planned to set up booths in the park, but outside of the actual event area. Mr. Johnson sued arguing that this arrangement infringes his constitutional rights. However, in a 41-page opinion issued last Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, appointed by President Clinton, denied Mr. Johnson’s request for an injunction that would force the Park Board to allow him access to the festival grounds saying that his constitutional challenge was unlikely to succeed. Really? In his opinion, Judge Davis noted that “free expression in a public forum is a core liberty that must be guarded with vigilance.” Indeed it is, Judge Davis! But within several days of Judge Davis’s ruling, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a temporary injunction that allowed Mr. Johnson full access to the park for this coming Sunday. He was represented by Jonathan Scruggs of the Alliance Defense Fund of Memphis. Further, Mr. Scruggs said the appeal will be argued in federal court to determine whether Mr. Johnson has access to future Sodomy Pride Festivals. Mr. Scruggs stated, “We think it is a good sign that the Eighth Circuit ruled so quickly and, we believe correctly, and upheld a fundamental First Amendment right to distribute literature in a public park.” Mr. Scruggs noted that while the Park Board argued that its plan would improve crowd control in the congested park, but “[n]o court has ever banned literature distribution in a public park in the name of congestion.”
One of the event organizers, Dot Belstler, said candidly, “[Mr. Johnson] has said his goal is to get everyone to know Jesus [and] he is allowed to do that. [But] it’s really kind of a nuisance.” Yes, Ms. Belstler, free speech can be unpleasant. As we know, the truth can set you free, but first, it will make you very angry.
Even if no one ever takes a Bible from Mr. Johnson, he is reminding all of us the important lesson that St. Paul taught to Timothy in II Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word; be ready to do this whether or not the time is convenient. Refute, warn, and encourage with the utmost patience when you teach.” Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for this important reminder. May God continue to bless your efforts!