A Wisconsin taxidermist who wants to distribute Bibles at the 40th Annual Twin Cities Pride festival in June is suing the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board over a plan to restrict him to an area away from the action.

In a federal lawsuit, Brian Johnson, an evangelical Christian from Hayward, says that he has distributed Bibles at the annual Loring Park event since 1995 and that he had no problems until 2009, when the organization refused to rent him a booth after asking about his views on homosexuality.

Johnson 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 they didn't leave. The charges were dropped.

Dot Belstler, Twin Cities Pride's executive director, said Johnson doesn't "accost" people but he has created problems at the event, which celebrates gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) individuals.

"He's a very open, likable gentleman," Belstler said. "He would talk to people and kind of engage them in conversation and then would go into, that they're going to hell, they're an abomination. That's really kind of the exact opposite of our message of pride in being OK with who you are."

Belstler said a number of Christian organizations participate in the festival, "but they are open and welcome to the GLBT community. He's not. He doesn't fit."

Settlement, then suit

In 2010, the Park Board said that Johnson's activities during the festival were protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, Twin Cities Pride refused to rent him a booth and sued the Park Board, seeking a restraining order to bar "unauthorized" distribution of literature.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim agreed with the Park Board but suggested a compromise. "In theory, Twin Cities Pride could designate 'free- speech zones' on the Pride Festival grounds in which anyone who wishes to distribute literature or display signage may do so," he wrote.

The Park Board and festival planners settled the suit last May. The board agreed to forbid distribution of unapproved materials in the festival area but would designate another area for people such as Johnson.

Johnson, who wasn't party to the settlement, filed suit Friday against the Park Board seeking to overturn the agreement.

"The Park Board has essentially put a large cast, or a large prohibition, on free speech in a public park," said Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney from Memphis who is representing Johnson. Scruggs works with the Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz., which advocates cases involving religious freedom.

A spokeswoman for the Park Board said it has not been served with the suit and doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Legal perspectives

Joel Nichols, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who writes about religious and free speech issues, said government agencies are allowed to impose restrictions on the time, place and manner of public speech. But he said if Johnson isn't disrupting the event, "he's clearly allowed to be there."

Scruggs agreed. "In this situation we're not talking about protests. We're not talking about loud noise. We're talking about literature distribution," he said. "You can't exile free speech to certain areas if that free speech doesn't cause any problems."

Courts in several federal jurisdictions have found that public agencies cannot ban literature in one public area simply because it's tolerated elsewhere, Scruggs said.

This year's Pride festival is June 23-24. Johnson's suit says the festival website mentions a "no-pride" zone for those denied a booth at the festival.

Nichols said if it's tucked into a corner, then Johnson has "a pretty good claim" that he's not being treated equally. And if the Park Board has a policy allowing free speech but makes an exception for this event, Nichols said, "then he really is being discriminated against."

Belstler said the area set aside for non-Pride booths is a major entrance to the park. "It's on the corner of 15th and Lyndale," she said.

The Pride festival has been held in Loring Park for 35 of its 40 years, Belstler said. "So it really was understood that we had an exclusive permit. We have no problem with people walking through the park ... and saying whatever they need to say to people," she said.

"The problem is when you stop people and cause a traffic backup. There's a lot of people in the park, and the goal is safety."

Johnson's suit claims that his Bible distribution hasn't caused any obstructions. "He never draws a crowd, preferring to deal with individuals one on one," the suit says.

Dan Browning • 612-673-449