Two members of Gideons International who were arrested in Florida for handing out Bibles on a public sidewalk are battling a second round of charges, after the initial trespassing charges against them were dismissed, but authorities filed a new set.
“Why is Florida so interested in prosecuting people who hand out Bibles?” asked the Alliance Defense Fund, which is working on the case for the two volunteers. “Does the state now believe that its citizens will be safer if ‘protected’ from Bibles? In a country founded on religious freedom, the actions of the State are a disgrace.”
Officials with the law firm have confirmed that they now have filed a new motion to dismiss the new charges facing the Gideons for their work in Key Largo.
As WND reported earlier, Anthony Mirto and Ernest Simpson of Monroe County were arrested, charged with trespassing, and booked into jail after the school principal called police while the two men were distributing copies of the Bible on a public sidewalk earlier this year.
They were verbally assaulted and badgered by the arresting officer, according to court filings in the case, and sustained injury to their wrists when he handcuffed them with their hands behind their backs and detained them in a closed, un-air conditioned car for nearly an hour in 90-degree heat.
Key Largo School Principal Annette Martinson
“Following the initial motion to dismiss filed by ADF attorneys, the state dismissed the charges but then filed new ones under a different statute,” the ADF said.
“The distribution of Bibles on a public sidewalk is not a criminal offense,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman. “The attempts by Florida officials to continue pressing for the prosecution of Mr. Mirto and Mr. Simpson is not only blatantly unconstitutional, it borders on religious persecution.”
The incident developed Jan. 19, when the two men were distributing Bibles on a public sidewalk outside Key Largo School but did not step onto school grounds, the ADF said. Both men were arrested, booked, and charged with trespassing after the school’s principal called police. On March 8, ADF attorneys filed a motion to dismiss and the state did dismiss those counts.
However, it filed new charges under a different law that prohibits anyone from being within 500 feet of any school property, including on public sidewalks and streets, without having either “legitimate business” or permission, the ADF said.
“The facts are clear: Mr. Mirto and Mr. Simpson are guilty of nothing more than peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights,” Cortman said. “For whatever reason, the state is grasping at straws in order to justify the punishment of these men.”
The state of Florida is now in the “untenable position of trying to justify the punishment of fundamental First Amendment activities in a quintessential traditional public forum,” the law firm said. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedents over the last century, that is a “blatant violation of their constitutional rights.”
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.
In fact, if anyone may have stepped beyond the law, the filing suggests, it was the arresting officer from the Monroe County sheriff’s office.
“There was no call for Officer [John] Perez’s angry demeanor, his inappropriate handling of the situation, his abusive treatment of the Gideons, his stopping and arresting them while they were in the process of leaving, his unnecessary towing of the car (parked where many other cars were parked), his handcuffing the men behind their backs, his leaving them cramped in a hot car for nearly an hour (which should never be done to animals, never mind to human beings), nor his mocking the Gideons’ religious beliefs stating ‘now you can pray to Jesus all the way to jail,’” the ADF said.
The new motion seeks to dismiss the new counts in “State of Florida v. Simpson” and “State of Florida v. Mirto.”
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. She later declined additional comment.
“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 vehicle parked near, but not on, school property.
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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