Two Florida men who wanted to give Bibles to children in their community are being charged under a state law that bans anyone from being within 500 feet of the land on which schools are built unless they have “legitimate business” or “prior authorization.”
As WND reported earlier, Anthony Mirto and Ernest Simpson of Monroe County were arrested, booked into jail and charged with trespassing because they were handing out Bibles while standing on a public sidewalk adjacent to a school.
Those trespassing charges were dismissed on a motion from lawyers for the Alliance Defense Fund, who challenged them on factual and constitutional grounds.
But Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman told WND he’d been notified that the two men now are being re-charged under a different statute, this one banning anyone from being on public property within 500 feet of a school property without “prior authorization” or “legitimate business.”
He said the law also includes an exemption for someone who lives within that distance from a school property.
“This obviously is unconstitutional for several reasons,” Cortman said. “The First Amendment gives you a right to be out there and engage in speech. Is anyone who uses the sidewalk or [the adjacent] highway now in violation?”
He said another issue is the definition of “legitimate business.” It’s not for the government to apply those words using one definition to one group of people, and then apply those words using another definition to another group of people, he said.
“The government is not allowed to have unbridled discretion to define words in whatever manner they choose,” he said.
On the face of the statute cited by the prosecutor, people driving by the school on the highway technically are in violation of the law, unless they have an exemption, and if the same exemption doesn’t apply to the two members of Gideons International, then that creates a content-based speech restriction, which also isn’t proper, Cortman said.
“The question I have is why is the state so intent on punishing these gentlemen for passing out Bibles on public property?” he asked. “This is just beyond comprehension.”
Key Largo School Principal Annette Martinson
The arrest happened Jan. 19, when Mirto and Simpson were on the sidewalk outside of Key Largo School in Key Largo, Fla., and were distributing copies of the Bible to those interested.
A written report from the ADF on the case confirmed that neither man entered school grounds. Despite that, the school’s principal called police, and an officer from the Monroe County sheriff’s officer asked the men to leave immediately or face trespassing charges. As the men prepared to leave, the officer decided to arrest both individuals, the report said.
“Officials cannot use fear of arrest as a means of bullying law-abiding Christians into silence,” Cortman said. “These men broke no laws when they decided to communicate their message on a public sidewalk.”
Monroe County Sheriff Richard Roth
In a statement at the outset of the case to WND, Becky Herrin, of the public information office in the Monroe County sheriff’s office, stated as a fact that the defendants in the case did trespass.
“A copy of our police report (see attached) … clearly states that the people in question were arrested for trespassing on school property – not on a public sidewalk… In fact, they were given the opportunity to step off school property and onto public property, and they could have continued with their activities if they had done so. They chose instead to remain, against repeated warnings, on school property so deputies were forced to arrest them,” Herrin said in a statement to WND.
But the report forwarded to WND revealed the two were arrested while in their truck in a “no parking” zone. The report said that on the complaint from school principal Annette Martinson, when the two defendants were ordered by the deputy to leave an area that included a bike path, “both defendants slowly walked away towards a teal in color pick up truck that was parked in a no parking zone in front of the school.”
One suspect then wanted the officer’s ID, and, “I then handed Simpson … my business card and he continued to walk toward the parked truck,” said the police allegation from officer John Perez.
The officer then confirms, “I observed both defendants enter the pick up truck and remain seated inside.” He watched for several minutes, then approached the pickup truck, parked in a “no parking” zone, “I asked both defendants why they where (sic) refusing to leave,” and “Defendant Simpson III stated, we where (sic) just leaving.”
Perez then confirmed that after he got a call from the sheriff’s office notifying him that Simpson was complaining “about a deputy at the Key Largo School asking him to leave, I advised Sgt. Mixon I was out with Simpson and he was going to be placed under arrest for trespassing.”
Reached after hours, Herrin told WND that she couldn’t comment immediately on the update. “Given that it’s after hours, I can’t say one way or another on that,” she said.
The Gideons, a group founded in the late 1800s, has as its “sole purpose” the goal “to win men, women, boys and girls to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ through association for service, personal testimony, and distributing the Bible in the human traffic lanes and streams of everyday life.”
Members of the Gideons, who pay their own expenses so 100 percent of the donations to the group go toward Bible purchases and distributions, have placed the Bible in 181 nations in 82 different languages over the years.
The organization focuses on hotels and motels, hospitals and nursing homes, schools, colleges and universities, the military and law enforcement and prisons and jails.
“The demand for Scriptures in these areas far exceeds our supplies that we are able to purchase through our donations. Much more could be done – if funds were available. However, we are placing and distributing more than 1 million copies of the Word of God, at no cost, every seven days in these areas…” the group said.
The organization only gives away the Bibles with the Gideon logo on the covers, but plain Bibles are available for consumers to purchase at its distribution center at P.O. Box 140800, Nashville, Tenn., 37214-0800. Information about the products is available on the group’s website.
The Gideons serve as an extended missionary arm of the Christian church and are the oldest Christian business and professional men’s association in the United States.
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