A pastor who was threatened with arrest for distributing Bibles at a Harley-Davidson festival in Greenfield, Wis., was permitted to hand them out once again after city officials received a letter from Alliance Defending Freedom notifying them of the pastor's First Amendment rights.
"No one should be threatened with arrest simply because they choose to exercise their First Amendment freedoms in a public place," said ADF Legal Counsel Jon Scruggs in a press release. "We commend the city for promptly agreeing to respect the constitutionally protected right of this pastor and all Americans to peacefully distribute faith-based literature."
The incident was brought to the attention of ADF by Dan Lawrence, senior pastor of Murrysville Alliance Church in Murrysville, Penn., though it began with one of his friends, David Murray.
The letter ADF sent to city officials says Murray and another friend attended the festival on Aug. 28 to hand out Bibles. The festival took place on West Layton Avenue, which had been blocked off so that pedestrians but no vehicles could enter the event. Shortly after they began their work, Murray was approached by a security officer who told him he had to leave because the owner of the area wanted him to do so.
But Murray continued to share his faith, the letter says, and as a result was told by other security and police officers that he had to leave the event. One Greenfield police officer said Murray was within his rights to hand out the Bibles, but another later said he could only minister on the sidewalk, which was behind the festival vendors and not accessed by anyone else attending the festival. Police Captain Michael Brunner also told him he must hand out Bibles on the sidewalk.
Murray then called Lawrence, who eventually approached Brunner about the situation. The letter states that Brunner told the pastor the street was private property, and that he and his friends could be cited for trespassing if they continued handing out Bibles on it. The next morning, the document also states, Assistant Police Chief Paul Schlecht told Lawrence that the city attorney had determined that the street was private property.
But admission to the festival was free and the event was open to the public. As such the street should have been considered a traditional public forum, where expression "deserves the highest level of protection," the letter states.
Greenfield Police Chief Bradley Wentlandt informed ADF via email Friday that "personnel have been advised to allow your client's activity within the public streets, sidewalks and right of way," the legal ministry says. The festival continued through Monday.
"The government should not harass and threaten citizens for exercising their constitutionally protected freedoms in public," ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said in a press release. "The city of Greenfield has rightly understood this, and we will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that this pastor's freedom to share his faith is respected. The First Amendment specifically protects every American's freedom of speech and religious expression."
Lawrence was not available to speak to The Christian Post before publication time.