A district court judge in Michigan declined to dismiss a case against four street preachers who were arrested back in June after engaging in conversations with attendees of a large Arab festival.
Judge Marks Somers of 19th District Court in Dearborn heard arguments for two hours on Monday and said he needed clarification on some issues that had been raised before deciding whether or not to drop the charges against Negeen Mayel, Dr. Nabeel Qureshi, Paul Rezkalla, and David Wood.
Defense attorney Robert Muise, senior trial counsel with the Thomas More Law Center, argued in court that the group did nothing wrong and that their arrest violates their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and religion.
"My clients should not stand trial for exercising their First Amendment rights," Muise said.
According to the street preachers, several individuals had engaged in "civilized" conversations with Qureshi on the opening night of the 15th Annual Dearborn Arab International Festival, which drew hundreds of thousands from across the country, Canada and the Middle East.
"We made sure that the only people we talked to were people who first approached us. And this was to limit accusations of instigation and disruption," Qureshi noted shortly after the June 18 incident. "We knew people have a tendency to accuse us of being disruptive, of inciting, and instigating. So we wanted to make sure we did absolutely nothing of the sort."
Despite the extra steps of precautions and the eventually-amicable nature of the conversations, the four were accused by passerbys of disturbing the peace and soon after arrested by police. Notably, however, only one – Qureshi – had been engaged in conversation. Two others – Wood and Rezkalla – were reportedly only videotaping the dialogue. The fourth – 18-year-old Mayel – was also videotaping, but doing so from afar.
"I'm 18-years-old, I've had no record, and now I'm being hauled off to jail for holding a camera at this Dearborn festival," remarked Mayel, who said she was standing about 100 feet away from the other three.
The Thomas More Law Center, which took up the case four days after the incident, has alleged that the arrests were a "retaliatory action over the embarrassing video of the strong arm tactics used last year by Festival Security Guards."
"This time, the first thing police officers did before making the arrests was to confiscate the video cameras in order to prevent a recording of what was actually happening," noted TMLC president and chief counsel Richard Thompson.
Dearborn city officials, however, maintain that the arrests were a matter of public safety as the preachers' activities were allegedly creating a disturbance at the festival.
William DeBiasi, Dearborn assistant city attorney, said one festival volunteer had complained that he felt threatened by the Christian group.
"The behavior of these individuals drew and incited a large crowd to a point where they were in violation of city of Dearborn misdemeanor ordinances of breach of peace and failure to obey the lawful order of a police officer," city officials said in a press release.
"This issue has nothing to do with First Amendment Rights; it has to do with public safety and the individual choices made by the arrested parties," they added in a statement posted on the city's website.
During Monday's hearing, Muise questioned the validity of some of the witness statements, citing three inconsistencies as well as the motives of the police.
"The judge is going through this with great detail and looking at it closely, and I appreciate that," Muise told the Dearborn Free Press afterward.
If Muise's motion to dismiss the charges is denied, a trial will be held Sept. 20.
The defendants, all associated with the Acts 17 Apologetics Ministries, face fines of up to $500 each and up to 93 days in jail. Mayel was also charged with disobeying an officer.
Acts 17 was founded by Qureshi and Wood – a former Muslim and a former atheist, respectively.