A Philadelphia judge on Thursday dismissed all criminal charges against the four Christians arrested for quoting Bible verses during a homosexual fair last October, prompting praise from Christian rights advocates across the nation.
"Justice finally has been done, but the city should be held accountable," said Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture & Family Institute. "These ludicrous charges were hanging over their heads for months. We're confident that city officials who authorized this persecution will be facing a lawsuit."
The four Christians, all from a conservative Christian group called Repent America, were arrested alongside a 17-year-old minor for preaching the word of God during the Outfest homosexual street fair on Oct. 10, 2004. Together known as the Philly five, the Christian protestors, who were arrested after a scuffle with a gay-activist group called Pink Angels, each faced 47 years of prison prior to todays ruling.
After a preliminary hearing in December, Judge William Austin Meehan ordered four of the Christians to stand trial on three felony and five misdemeanor charges - ethnic intimidation, riot, criminal conspiracy, reckless endangerment, possessing an instrument of crime, highway obstruction, failure to disperse, and disorderly conduct.
The three felony charges against the Christian protestors stemmed from Pennsylvanias Ethnic Intimidation Law, which adds penalties to criminal acts deemed a hate crime.
However, Judge Pamela Dembe of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas dismissed the charges today, saying the First Amendment protects unpopular speech as much as popular speech.
"We are one of the very few countries that protects unpopular speech," Dembe said after viewing a videotape of the arrests. "And that means that Nazis can March in Skokie, Ill. ... That means that the Ku Klux Klan can march where they wish to. We cannot stifle speech because we don't want to hear it, or we don't want to hear it now."
Joe Infranco, Senior Counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund, whose group represented the protestors in the criminal case, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Marcavage, Diener, Cruse and Green, said the ruling was the right response to a case that shouldnt have been.
The judge saw this case for what it is. This was the right response to an outrageous abuse of power to silence speech that some people didnt like, said Infranco.
What took place here was a government crackdown on disfavored speech, Infranco added. The Outfest participants staged a national coming-out day on a public street using public funds, and then they tried to say its a private event. That didnt make any sense, and neither did the actions of the police who arrested our clients.
The Pennsylvania Constitution holds the inalienable right to speak your conscience. It says that free speech is an invaluable right of man, said Infranco. Clearly, these protestors had a right to peacefully walk a public street and express their views, and the judge saw that.
CWAs chief Counsel Jan LaRue agreed, saying the ruling was the right and wise opinion.
"The judge wisely pounded a gavel against the most egregious form of the 'Heckler's Veto,' a criminal prosecution of protected speech," said LaRue.
Meanwhile, Michael Marcavage, the leader of Repent America, said after the ruling that he felt vindicated.
"It's a good thing to know that there are still some judges who respect the First Amendment," he said.
Initially 11 Christians were arrested at the Outfest festival for their noisy but nonviolent confrontation with the homosexual people. Charges on six of the Christians were dropped at the initial hearing; four adults and one minor were charged on numerous counts. Todays decision applies only to the four adults charged, but the charges against the juvenile are expected to be dropped Friday.