An evangelist is suing the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, after he was kicked out of a public park for preaching the Gospel.
A complaint was filed in federal court last week by Rodney Keister, the founder of the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Evangelism Mission. The group is devoted to “sharing the Christian faith in open public areas throughout the country.”
The complaint claims that Keister was evangelizing, handing out Christian tracts and singing worship songs with his daughter at LeBauer Park in Greensboro last September. They were approached by a park official and asked if they had the required permits to engage in the activity.
When they said they did not have permits, they were told they were violating park rules and ordered to leave the premises. According to the legal document, Keister and his daughter were told that LeBauer Park was a privately managed park that was city-owned.
The park’s rules expressly prohibit “prolonged or disruptive loitering” as well as “disruption of the peace” or “any other negative behavior.” The rules also ban the distribution and posting of “flyers or other marketing materials and solicitations of any kind” unless permitted by Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc.
GDPI is a private company that partners with the city to operate LeBauer Park and Center City Park, two privately built facilities gifted to the city.
The park consists of three cafes, a 17,000-square foot event venue, a playground, a dog park, 1 acre of ornamental gardens as well as other amenities.
The complaint alleges that after the incident with the park official, Keister dialed 911 to complain that his rights were being infringed upon. However, city police sided with GDPI.
According to McClatchy, a letter was later sent by Keister’s lawyer to city police arguing that the park rules restricting solicitation effectively bans “religious speech in a public park.”
The complaint states that a city attorney also responded by stating that Keister would not be allowed in the park “unless he could avoid violation of park rules” and avoid complaints about his speech.
In order to hand out Gospel tracts or other Christian literature, Keister was told that he would have to have all literature reviewed by GDPI before he could hand them out.
But Keister and his lawyer contend that the park’s rules are unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Keister understands some people might disagree with his religious message, but he does not seek to offend anyone or cause a disturbance,” the lawsuit reads.
Greensboro City Attorney Charles Watts told McClatchy that the city played no part in how Keister was treated. Watts reiterated that Keister’s interaction at the park last September was only with employees of GDPI, not city officials.
This is not the first time that Keister has taken legal action in response to censorship of his evangelism.
In March 2016, Keister sued the University of Alabama after he was stopped from preaching by campus police in Tuscaloosa and told he needed a permit.
After a loss in U.S. District Court, Keister suffered defeat again in 2018 at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The court ruled that the area in which Keister was preaching was “not intended as an area for the public's expressive conduct.”