Alliance Defense Fund attorneys have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) on behalf of an Oakland, Tenn., man for unconstitutionally prohibiting him from distributing Christian literature in front of the Oakland post office.
Michael Choate was arrested for passing out religious pamphlets, often called "tracts," and asserts in the complaint that he has the right to express his beliefs on public property and was wrongly arrested. Choate contends he did not disturb or interfere with postal service, customers or operations of the facility.
"Christians shouldn't be arrested and silenced for peacefully sharing their beliefs on public property," said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Nate Kellum in a statement released on Monday.
For a period of about two weeks in July 2010, Choate passed out the tracts in front of the post office without incident. The following month, Choate continued distributing the material before being approached by Postmaster Terrena Moore, who ordered him to immediately leave the property or face possible arrest.
After discussing the matter with Moore, Choate remained on the property and waited for police to arrive. Officers then ordered him to leave or be arrested for trespassing. The charges were later dropped.
ADF first sought to counsel the USPS on citizens' religious rights in public spaces in a November 2010 letter. However, the postal service responded with a letter defending Oakland Postmaster Moore's decision to have Choate arrested.
Moore first cited post office regulation 39 C.F.R. § 232.1(o) entitled "Depositing Literature" to demand that Choate refrain from passing out literature on postal property, according to the ADF letter.
But Choate was standing near a flagpole some 40 feet away from the entrance, ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Jonathan Scruggs pointed out in a separate letter.
A USPS attorney responded, declaring that Choate had violated 39 C.F.R. § 232.1(e) – a disturbances provision – because some customers reported being "annoyed" with Choate’s actions.
According to Scruggs, however, Choate was peacefully offering passers-by a tract. If they rejected or refused the tract, he allegedly let them go without following or harassing them.
ADF asserts that the post office is misinterpreting their policies in a way that obstructs a citizen's constitutional rights. Attorneys also contend in the lawsuit that the provision unconstitutionally gives postal employees “unbridled discretion to prohibit peaceful literature distribution anytime they or a customer finds Choate’s message or viewpoint objectionable.”
"The post office isn't above the law and cannot take away citizens' constitutionally-protected rights just because it or its customers might not agree with the content of someone's speech or literature," stated Kellum.