The Minneapolis Park Board set improper restrictions for a man who wanted to give away Bibles at recent Twin Cities Pride Festivals, a federal appeals court panel said Wednesday.

The 2-1 ruling from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who ruled last year that the Park Board had made reasonable provisions for Brian Johnson to distribute Bibles at the festival, which takes place each June.

"We're thrilled with this opinion," said Nathan Kellum, a lawyer with the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis, Tenn., who represented Johnson. He said it will pave the way for Johnson to hand out Bibles during the festival in 2014 and subsequent years.

As it turned out, the Park Board was unable to enforce its limits on Johnson in 2012 and 2013 because of injunctions from the 8th Circuit in both years, giving him the unfettered right to hand out the Bibles.

The Park Board rules would have confined Johnson to distributing the Bibles at a booth in Loring Park outside the festival area as well as leaving them at a "material drop area" within the festival grounds.

Kellum said the site outside the festival "was a tract of land in a corner of the park where nobody would ever go because it was not part of a festival." The material drop area was on tables under an unmarked canopy, and no one else put literature there, he said.

Davis had ruled that the Park Board provided "ample alternative channels of communication" for Johnson to present his message to festival attendees.

He said Johnson was free to walk throughout the park, wear clothing expressing his beliefs, hold signs, approach attendees and "converse with those willing to engage with him" and point out where they could get a free Bible.

First Amendment cited

But the appeals panel majority of Judges Steven Colloton and Roger Wollman said Johnson faced "a loss of First Amendment freedoms" because of the limits. They said the board could not back up its claim that handing out Bibles would cause congestion.

It reversed Davis' denial of Johnson's motion for a preliminary injunction, remanding the case back to Davis.

"The District Court has no other choice but to order a preliminary injunction," Kellum said. It would bar the Park Board from enforcing its limitations on literature distribution.

Kellum said the board could also ask the entire Appeals Court to review the case and, far less likely, take it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If Wednesday's decision is not appealed, Davis could set up a trial date on the issues. There might be summary motions by both sides, asking Davis to rule in their favor.

"There could also be some type of resolution or settlement," said Kellum. "I am hopeful that would be the case."

Ann Walther, a Park Board attorney, had no comment, saying she hadn't had a chance to discuss it with the board.

The appeals panel noted that Johnson said the Bible specifies that homosexual conduct is a sin but "that he tries to avoid the subject of homosexuality when passing out Bibles at the Festival, and he does not believe that homosexual or heterosexual temptations, in and of themselves, constitute sin."

Dissenting opinion

In his dissent, Judge Kermit Bye said the Park Board demonstrated a significant government interest in limiting literature distribution during the festival "to maintain orderly flow of people, provide access for security and emergency vehicles, and facilitate Festival activities."

Bye cited a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing "a state's interest in protecting the safety and convenience of persons using a public forum."

In that case, members of the Krishna religious organization sought to hand out literature on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair, but the high court ruled that the fair acted properly in mandating that literature distribution be consigned to fixed locations.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224