A federal court issued an order Tuesday that will permit two Christian men to share their faith and pass out Gospel tracts during a Duluth, Minn., holiday lights show held in a city park, temporarily reversing the city’s decision last year to ban their evangelism from the event.
Although the court ruling is a temporary injunction, the Alliance Defense Fund claims a victory in its case defending the two Duluth-area residents, saying that they have prevented the city from enforcing what amounts to a “First Amendment ban on people desiring to share their faith at a city park.”
Last year, non-government organizers of the “Bentleyville Tour of Lights” alerted city officials about the men’s actions at the park, according to ADF. Police then told the two men to leave the event based upon 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,” ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Jonathan Scruggs told The Christian Post on Wednesday. “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.”
ADF reported that Peter Scott and a friend were speaking with those attending last year’s Bentleyville Tour of Lights and handing out religious literature when a police officer asked them to leave “even though they were conducting themselves in a non-disruptive manner.”
When the two men returned at a later time, several officials with the nonprofit event began to harass them for their beliefs, ADF stated.
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,” according to ADF. 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.”
No resolution was made last year in regards to the encounter between the two men with city officials and event organizers. In later correspondence, the city maintained its right to support the decisions of the private, nonprofit “Tour of Lights.”
However, ADF said that the city cannot ban free speech during an event open to the public and held in a public park.
“They were presenting a Gospel message that people need to believe in Jesus and that Jesus saves people from their sins,” Scruggs said. “That was the general message. They were doing that in conversation and in handing out literature, religious tracts about that message.”
The event, billed by organizers as the “Midwest’s Largest Holiday Light Display,” does include some religious symbolism, he said. However, included in a list of rules on the Bentleyville Tour of Lights website, is the statement: "No political campaigning, religious preaching, or public attempts to convert other's beliefs."
“The irony of it all is that in the midst of all these Christian symbols that event organizers were attempting to silence a Christian message by our clients,” Scruggs said.
“One of the keys to our arguments was that the city cannot just by whim change a public park from being a public park. It can’t ban the First Amendment in a public park just because event officials don’t like the message of the person that is sharing the message,” he explained.
Scruggs told CP that his clients plan on sharing the Gospel message at the event sometime before it ends this coming Monday.
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations “defending the right of people to freely live out their faith,” according to the law group. Scruggs said that the court ruling is a good sign that judges will rule in favor of his clients when the trial takes place sometime next year.
Attempts by The Christian Post to contact Bentleyville Tour of Lights event organizers were unsuccessful.