Gideons International, an evangelical Christian organization dedicated to distributing copies of the Bible, filed a lawsuit on Friday after members of the organization were arrested for their activities in Florida.
Defending the group is the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) – a legal alliance that defends the right to speak the "Truth" – which is arguing against the unlawful arrests. The Gideon members had been taken into custody because they were within 500 feet of a public school.
"Free speech in America exists even within 500 feet of public school property," explained ADF senior legal counsel David Cortman in a statement. "Under the First Amendment, the Gideons have every right to distribute Bibles on a public sidewalk to those who wish to accept them. There is no legal justification for the continued harassment of peaceful members of the community who wish to hand out Christian literature."
The incident took place on Jan. 19 while Thomas Gray, who filed the lawsuit, and other members of the Gideons Key Largo Camp were handing out Bibles outside Key Largo School, located on the southern tip of Florida. The group was on a public sidewalk when two of the Gideons, Mirto and Ernest Simpson, were approached and taken into custody by Monroe County sheriff's officers.
Gray asked one of the police, Office John Perez, why the two were being arrested. He then responded that Gray would know in 48 hours after he received the report.
He also added that the Gideons had "no right" to be within 500 feet of school property as well as telling his two detainees that they "can pray to Jesus all the way to jail," according to ADF.
"Officers cannot be permitted to bully law-abiding Christians, or use fear of arrest as a means of silencing them," added Cortman. "Their actions were fully protected under the First Amendment."
According to the Gideons Key Largo Camp, they did not step on to school grounds, and they had contacted the Monroe Country Sheriff's Office beforehand. They also notified school officials on the day of distribution.
According to the group, both parties had said the activity was allowed.
Gray has not returned to the area to distribute Bibles since the arrests, because he is anxious about being taken into custody himself.
"The distribution of Bibles on a public sidewalk is not a criminal offense," said Cortman in a separate statement. "The attempts by Florida officials to continue pressing for the prosecution of Mr. Mirto and Mr. Simpson is not only blatantly unconstitutional, it borders on religious persecution."