Evangelist stirs feud over Twin Cities Pride fest

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2010 - 9:58 AM

Organizers want a court order to keep Brian Johnson from attending the gay pride festival. Minneapolis says it can't bar him.

A born-again Christian evangelist and organizers of the nation's third-largest gay pride festival are locked in a free-speech dispute expected to land them in federal court just three days before 200,000 people descend on Loring Park for the Twin Cities Pride festival.

In the middle is the Minneapolis Park Board, which says it is "erring on the side of free speech" by allowing Brian Johnson into the festival.

The battle has gone on quietly for two weeks, since Twin Cities Pride attorneys learned that the Park Board approved a request by lawyers for Johnson, 53, of Hayward, Wis., to attend the festival and hand out literature.

Festival organizers requested that the board rescind its permission, but the board refused. Pride co-counsel Eileen Scallen said they will file for an injunction Wednesday in U.S. District Court to try to prevent Johnson from attending. They say Johnson is welcome, but his anti-gay literature is not.

"The Park Board thinks it's dangerous precedent to exclude someone from a public park and a public event because they have a differing view," said Park Board President John Erwin, who says he is gay and a Christian. Erwin said he finds Johnson's anti-gay message to be "reprehensible," but Erwin added, "I do believe he has the right to be wrong in a park."

Should a judge grant an injunction, Erwin said the board will gladly abide by it.

Ironically, Pride attorneys plan to cite a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that organizers of a Boston St. Patrick's Day Parade had the right to exclude a gay group from their event.

In a letter to Pride lawyers, Park Board attorney Brian Rice countered that since the Park Board denied Johnson a booth from which to distribute his literature, he is not part of the event. Still, he cannot be prevented from attending Pride, a public event, and sharing his views so long as he does not disturb anyone, the Park Board maintains.

Pride festival manager Jim Kelley said Johnson is welcome to distribute information on sidewalks outside the park. But because Pride paid more than $36,000 to the Park Board for use of the park, festival organizers have the right to tailor the message conveyed to visitors, Kelley said.

"Free speech and liberty belong to everybody," he said. "We are leasing this space, and if someone came into your home and started telling you what an awful family you have, [they] can have that opinion; [they] just can't have it in your house."

'Here to warn, not judge'

Johnson said that for about a decade, he, his wife and others leased a booth at the festival to hand out Bibles. Last year, organizers denied them a booth. When they showed up to distribute literature anyway, they were arrested for disorderly conduct, but the charges were dropped. This year, the festival again denied Johnson a vendor's permit.

Kelley said the festival eventually excluded Johnson after attendees complained.

Johnson contacted the Alliance Defense Fund [ADF], which handles freedom of religion cases and provided him an attorney. That attorney sent a letter to the Park Board, and the board on April 28 said Johnson could attend the festival. Scallen said the Park Board never notified Twin Cities Pride about Johnson or the letter. Erwin admits that was a mistake.

Johnson said he does not harass attendees or condemn their sexual orientation.

"I don't say that to anybody, anytime, anywhere," he said. "I'm not God. My basic religious belief is that God is Judge Number One, not me, and I'm there to warn people, not judge them."

He said that this year he plans to hand out religious messages and a survey asking whether festival organizers discriminated against him.

ADF senior counsel Nate Kellum said the case is "unusual in that you have a private entity suing the city to keep another citizen from speaking."

Kellum said ADF will fight the request for an injunction. Johnson said that if a judge bars him from the park, he'll evangelize from the perimeter. Organizers say they would have no problem with that.

"Absolutely they have a right to free speech," Kelley said of Johnson and his family. "But what it comes down to is they have to do it in their space; they can't do it in my space."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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