A Florida judge has dismissed all counts against two members of The Gideons International who were arrested while handing out Bibles on a public sidewalk outside a school, officials with the Alliance Defense Fund said.
“Christians cannot be treated as second-class citizens,” said ADF senior legal counsel David Cortman. “These two men have the same constitutional rights as everyone else to pass out literature on a public sidewalk.
“We are pleased that the court agrees that these men should not have been arrested and dismissed the charges against them,” he said.
The case has been handled by the legal alliance, which defends the right to hear and speak the truth through strategy, training, funding and litigation, since shortly after Ernest Simpson and Anthony Mirto were arrested.
They had been charged with trespassing after the principal complained that they were handing out Bibles.
The initial counts were dismissed at the request of the ADF shortly after the law firm got involved, but then authorities filed a second round of counts, 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.
“Why is Florida so interested in prosecuting people who hand out Bibles?” the ADF had wondered at the time. “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.”
Key Largo School Principal Annette Martinson
As WND originally reported, Mirto and Simpson of Monroe County were arrested, charged with trespassing, and booked into jail after the school principal, Annette Martinson, called police.
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.
“The distribution of Bibles on a public sidewalk is not a criminal offense,” Cortman said then. “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 Jan. 19 developed as the two men were distributing Bibles outside Key Largo School.
While the original trespassing counts were unreasonable, the second round put the state of Florida in the “untenable position of trying to justify the punishment of fundamental First Amendment activities in a quintessential traditional public forum,” the ADF described.
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.
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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