Minn. City Stops Christians From Evangelizing at Tour of Lights Event

An emergency motion was filed against the City of Duluth, Minn., earlier this week after the city continued to deny Christians the right to share their faith at a holiday lighting event that is held annually in a public park.

"The government cannot ban the First Amendment in a public park just because event officials don't like the message that a person is sharing," Jonathan Scruggs, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) legal counsel, said in statement. Scruggs is serving as co-counsel in the case with Nate Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression.

"The court ordered the city to respect the First Amendment, but it is not doing so," said Scruggs. "We are therefore asking the court to enforce its order and hold the city in contempt. It has disregarded both the court's order and what the order sought to protect: the constitutionally protected freedom of citizens to engage in non-disruptive speech in a public place."

Steve Jankowski, a minister, and three of his friends went to Bayfront Festival Park to share their faith and pass out Christian literature during opening day of the Bentleyville Tour of Lights event on Nov. 17. They were eventually asked by a police officer to leave, and were told they could only share their faith in a designated area outside of the event, despite a court order from December 2011 that says otherwise.

The friends left the park after being told they could be arrested for trespassing, despite having conducted themselves in a non-disruptive manner.

In a video clip captured by one of the friends, the officer said the rented park was considered "private property" for use by the nonprofit Tour of Lights organization only.

When Michael Winandy, one of Jankowski's friends, offered to show the officer a copy of the injunction against the city, the officer replied: "Ok, what I'm telling you is that our City Attorney has...given us direction that if you want to practice your First Amendment right, which is perfectly fine, that you have to be in that First Amendment Zone."

According to the website for Tour of Lights, which is described as the largest holiday light display in the Midwest and works to raise nonperishable food items and unwrapped toys for those in need, the event's staff has the right to ask people to leave if they make "public attempts to convert others' beliefs."

In a letter cited in the emergency motion filed Tuesday, the city says the previous court order that removed the First Amendment ban is no longer applicable – the terms of the contract between the city and the nonprofit have changed since the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota issued the injunction in December 2011 over a similar incident.

The City of Duluth has now granted the organization exclusive use of the park, though ADF attorneys say it is still a public forum because it is a public park and there is no charge for admission into the Tour of Lights event.

"Clearly, the city should have sought to talk to us and the court about the injunction before violating it. The city's improper actions do not change the fact that they have violated the First Amendment freedoms of these citizens," said Scruggs.

The Christian Post was unable to reach the offices of either Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson or Mayor Don Ness before publication time.