Judge rules evangelist can hand out Bibles at Pride Festival

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2010 - 11:43 PM

Judge says organizers don't have the right to restrict speech at Pride.

After a week of intense debate that culminated in arguments about the Constitution in a federal courtroom, a judge Friday affirmed a Wisconsin evangelist's right to hand out Bibles at this weekend's Twin Cities Pride festival in Minneapolis' Loring Park.

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ruled that the First Amendment gives Brian Johnson the right to evangelize there as long as he's not disruptive.

Tunheim wrote that although organizers paid $36,000 for a permit to use the park, that did not afford them the right to restrict the speech of those in it.

Pride organizers had filed for a temporary restraining order to keep Johnson from handing out materials without a vendor's permit, something they had denied him in the hope of preventing him from diluting their message of tolerance toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

Tunheim wrote: "The court's task here is to balance these competing interests to the greatest extent possible--to enable all speakers to exercise their constitutional rights--and then to depend on reasonable and law-abiding people to stay within proper limits."

He wrote that although festival organizers are entitled to decide who may be sponsors and exhibitors, Johnson, 53, of Hayward, Wis., is entitled to speak and hand out literature in a public park. He called these "quintessential activities protected by the First Amendment, so long as he remains undisruptive."

He suggested festival organizers could designate "free speech zones" where people could distribute materials and could prohibit such distribution elsewhere in the park, as long as people could still speak their minds anywhere on festival grounds.

Eileen Scallen, co-counsel for Twin Cities Pride, said free-speech zones are "not a practical solution." She said organizers met with the city Park and Recreation Board after the order was issued and are confident few security issues will arise.

Festival organizers filed a civil rights complaint against the Park Board, saying their own First Amendment rights had been violated when the board gave its permission to Johnson to distribute materials at the festival, even though organizers had denied him a permit. Organizers are concerned that attendees will assume that because Johnson was allowed to distribute, he's there with Twin Cities Pride's blessing.

"Judge Tunheim does not understand this guy could easily be mistaken for someone who is a friendly, supportive Christian," Scallen said, adding that the festival, billed as the third-largest of its kind in the country, will have 14 church-affiliated booths.

Tunheim, in his ruling, countered that there will be "no danger of confusion" between Johnson's and Pride's messages.

Johnson, who did not return calls, is expected to arrive at Loring Park early Saturday afternoon with his family to distribute Bibles. His attorney, Nate Kellum of the Alliance Defense Fund, called Tunheim's ruling "spot-on."

The ruling came 24 hours after a hearing at which attorneys argued their sides. Attorneys for the Park Board, which agreed to allow Johnson to distribute materials after receiving a letter from his attorney, argued that prohibiting him from doing so would violate his First Amendment rights.

Johnson handed out Bibles for 10 years as an official Pride vendor until organizers denied him that privilege in 2009. They said he espoused anti-gay messages and had been dishonest about his intentions. Despite being blocked as a vendor, he distributed Bibles at last year's festival and was arrested when he refused to leave. Charges were later dropped.

Pride attorneys argued that Johnson's presence would cause "irreparable harm" and potential "anarchy." They also argued that he would impede foot traffic and cause extra litter because attendees would toss his literature.

Festival manager Jim Kelley said that although it appears Johnson may roam festival grounds and share his message as he pleases, organizers will not validate his views by granting him a booth again.

"If he shows up, we want our guests to know he's a protester," Kelley said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters