Man wins last-minute appeal to distribute Bibles at Pride

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2012 - 11:19 AM

Brian Johnson says he's been spreading "the love of Jesus Christ" at Pride fest since 1995.

Buoyed by a last-minute court injunction, a Wisconsin taxidermist who believes that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is sinful passed out Bibles on Sunday at yet another Twin Cities Pride Festival.

"I do this once a year. I talk to people about the love of Jesus Christ," said Brian Johnson, an evangelical Christian from Hayward, as he stood with his family and a black suitcase full of Bibles in Minneapolis' Loring Park, the epicenter of the 40th annual festival.

His legal route back to the park was convoluted. Festival organizers' attempts to ban Johnson from the park had resulted in a Minneapolis Park Board plan to restrict his Bible distribution to a booth on the edge of the festival. Two weeks ago, his request for an injunction against that ban was denied by a U.S. District Court judge.

But Johnson's attorneys immediately filed an emergency appeal, saying the Park Board's plan violated his constitutional right to free speech in a public place. They asked for a quick decision, one in time for the upcoming Pride Festival.

On Thursday, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a temporary injunction that allowed Johnson full access to the park Sunday, said his attorney, Jonathan Scruggs of the Alliance Defense Fund of Memphis, which defends religious liberties. Scruggs said the appeal will be argued in federal court to determine whether Johnson has access to future Pride Festivals.

"We think it is a good sign that the Eighth Circuit ruled so quickly and, we believe correctly, and upheld a fundamental First Amendment right to distribute literature in a public park," Scruggs said.

Noting that the Park Board had argued that its plan would improve crowd control in the congested park, he added, "No court has ever banned literature distribution in a public park in the name of congestion."

A back-and-forth fight

Johnson's lawsuit said he has distributed Bibles at the annual event since 1995 and had no problems until 2009, when the organization refused to rent him a booth after an exchange about his views on homosexuality.

He and his family planned to walk through the 2009 event distributing Bibles, but festival officials told them they weren't welcome, his suit says. A police officer allegedly told Johnson that the park was "private property" that day, and Johnson was arrested when his family would not leave. Charges later were dropped.

In 2010, Pride planners sued the Park Board, seeking a court injunction to keep Johnson away. They lost when U.S. District Judge John Tunheim ruled that a broad restriction based on the content of Johnson's speech would violate his rights under the First Amendment. So Johnson returned to that year's festival.

In 2011, Twin Cities Pride and the Park Board reached a settlement stipulating that the board would set up booths in Loring Park, including some outside the festival area for people excluded by the Pride officials. The agreement allowed anyone walking through the festival to share their views with willing listeners, but banned literature distribution in the festival area except at booths approved by Twin Cities Pride.

So last year, Johnson distributed Bibles outside the festival area but challenged the plan in federal court. Last week came the temporary reprieve.

On Sunday, wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with "Free Bibles" printed on the front, he stood with his wife and grown son on a tree-shaded lawn near the walking bridge that stretches from Loring Park over Lyndale Avenue, distributing Bibles over the course of a few hours. He said his attorney had cautioned him against talking too much to reporters.

As he spoke with a woman in a purple T-shirt, his son, Jason Johnson, 25, videotaped the conversation, saying the attorneys had asked him to videotape their day in the park "to show there were no incidents throughout the event."

Jason said a few people tried to block his way as he videotaped his father's walk through the park. "We talked to security and it was OK," he said.

Pride Executive Director Dot Belstler said Johnson walked through the park without incident except that some people asked not to be videotaped by his son.

"Anybody can have freedom of speech," Belstler said. "I am worried about traffic control ... about people getting through the path." She estimated that more than 150,000 people were in Loring Park Sunday. Johnson alone wouldn't cause a problem, she said, but a few other groups also asked to distribute literature, some on the sidewalk across from the park, "which we prefer," she said.

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283

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