A federal court panel decided Thursday to allow a Sudanese Christian pastor to distribute religious literature and discuss his Christian faith to Muslims attending a large Arab festival while his case is pending on appeal.
The decision by the three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to grant Pastor George Saieg the emergency motion for a temporary restraining order came just a day before the start of this year's annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Mich., which is expected to draw over 300,000 people from across the country, Canada and the Middle-East.
"The Sixth Circuit's quick response is a great victory for the First Amendment and a defeat for Dearborn's effort to cater to its large Muslim population by ignoring our Constitution," commented Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), in a statement.
"It's ironic that while Americans recently applauded the free speech exercised by hundreds of thousands of Muslims on the streets of Iran, the City of Dearborn was restricting the free speech rights of Christians on the city's public streets and sidewalks," added Thompson, whose legal group has been defending Saieg and the pastor's Calif.-based ministry, Arabic Christian Perspective (ACP), since last year.
Though ACP had visited Dearborn for the city's annual Arab festival since 2004, the group was told last year that they had to remain at a specific location and were not allowed to freely travel the public sidewalks to distribute their literature outside the festival.
When the Dearborn Police Department threatened to arrest Saieg if he distributed his religious literature near the 2009 Arab Festival, Ann Arbor-based TMLC filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, challenging the constitutionality of Dearborn's speech restriction.
"This is a victory for the First Amendment and the free speech rights of Christians," remarked Robert J. Muise, senior trial counsel for TMLC, following Thursday's decision.
"While the extraordinary relief granted by the Sixth Circuit only applies to the upcoming festival, it is a good indication that we will ultimately prevail on appeal," he added.
Dearborn, with an estimated 30,000 of its 98,000 residents ascribing to Islam, happens to be one of the most densely populated Muslim communities in the United States.
The 15th Annual Dearborn Arab International Festival, which is takes place June 18-20, features 30-international food booths, a large carnival, an interactive children's stage, Arab merchandise, calligraphy, and bread making, among others.
The festival is spearheaded by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce.