A federal judge has upheld a decision by festival organizers in Dearborn, Mich., which is about 30 percent Muslim, to ban a Christian ministry from handing out religious information on public sidewalks.
The ruling came from U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmonds and affects this weekend’s celebration but will not affect the free speech lawsuit over the event, filed by the Thomas More Law Center and the Becker Law Firm.
The case is being brought on behalf of the Arabic Christian Perspective, a Christian group that ministers to Muslims. According to the Thomas More Law Center, Pastor George Saieg and scores of his volunteers have visited Dearborn for the city’s Arab International Festival to hand out religious information several times.
At estimated 30,000 of Dearborn’s nearly 100,000 residents are Muslim.
While there never has been a disruption of the public peace during the five years the ministry has been attending, this year Dearborn police warned Saieg he and his group would not be allowed to walk the public sidewalks to hand out information and instead would be confined to a specific spot, the lawsuit said.
After negotiations in Dearborn failed to restore the Christians’ rights, the lawsuit was filed.
“It’s ironic that while Americans are applauding the free speech exercised by hundreds of thousands of Muslims on the streets of Iran, the city of Dearborn is restricting free speech rights Christians are attempting to exercise on the city’s public sidewalks,” said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center.
“This case involves an important constitutional question regarding the government’s ability to prohibit peaceful speech activities,” said Law Center attorney Robert Muise, who argued for the Christians’ rights before Edmonds.
“This preliminary ruling, while disappointing, will not affect the remainder of the case. We intend to pursue this as far as necessary,” he said.
Mary Landroche, director of the city’s department of public information, said the judge’s ruling agreed the city had the right to establish rules for maintaining order.
“[She] did agree with the city we have an interest in controlling the crowds,” Landroche told WND. She said the city’s rules are “content-neutral,” but she could not provide information about any other group impacted by the change.
But she said the city decided the public sidewalks are “part of the festival grounds.”
Fay Beydoun of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn told the Detroit News there was “no problem” with the Christians being at the event, “but we do have to think about the safety of everyone.”
The complaint said public streets are properly considered a traditional public forum.
“The Supreme Court has emphasized that the streets are natural and proper places for the dissemination of information and opinion; and one is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression inappropriately abridged on the plea that it may be exercised in some other place,” the complaint said.
The complaints cited a police statement that the Christians would be classified among “political parties and protesters,” and would be limited to a single location.