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Government calls preaching 'clear and present danger'

Liberty Bell engraving that states: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

A panel of judges at the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today heard arguments that free speech should be allowed on public property at the site of the famous Liberty Bell, which itself quotes from the Bible in stating, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

The arguments came in a case involving Michael Marcavage, a minister whose work includes street preaching. He was fined and put on probation after preaching to the public on a sidewalk outside the Liberty Bell center. He was prosecuted for stepping over the standard in the code of federal regulations regarding a “clear and present danger,” prosecutors told WND.

The case began in October 2007 when Marcavage, director of the Repent America ministry, was arrested by supervising U.S. Park Ranger Alan Saperstein.

Marcavage ultimately was charged with violating a so-called “verbal permit” and “interfering with agency functions.”

A video of the arrest has been posted:

Evangelist Arrested for Preaching Near Liberty Bell from Repent America on Vimeo.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Goldberg argued during the June 2008 trial that Marcavage’s presence needed to be dealt with because of the danger presented to the operation of the building.

Goldberg told WND that the issue was not the message but the location near the entrance to a government building.

“It has always been location, his standing in that location, that has been the issue,” he said. “The only thing he was asked to do was move away from the entrance to the building.”

He said Marcavage was referred to another location, about 100 yards away, but he did not move.

According to Marcavage, Independence National Historical Park Law Enforcement Specialist Donald Reed recently reaffirmed that free speech activities are banned on any of the public sidewalks surrounding the park that line city streets without first obtaining government permission. He said even with a permit, the activities must be confined to a designated “free speech zone.”

“In Philadelphia, the birthplace of American freedom, at the site of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, freedom is under attack by the very government that was established here to protect it,” Marcavage said.

Liberty Bell in Philadelphia

“The blessings of liberty that God bestowed upon our nation continue to be lost while the Gospel of Jesus Christ is silenced,” he continued. “If the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the ruling and finds that the federal government can ban Americans from speaking to others on matters that are important to them in the public forum or without advanced government permission, then this could very well be the final nail in the coffin of our freedoms.”

Marcavage told WND that based on their questioning, the three appellate judges – Michael Fisher, Thomas Hardiman and Robert Cowen – appeared to wonder about the prohibition on his preaching when other protesters with another message were left untouched. He noted commercial speech also was taking place in the same area where he was arrested.

“We obviously hope that what they revealed through the very hard questioning will be favorable toward freedom,” Marcavage told WND.

Goldberg told WND he could not comment on the appeals process while it was pending.

Marcavage said it is “absurd” that Americans have to fight for the right to speak freely on a public sidewalk near Independence Hall, where much of the work writing the U.S. Constitution was done, and adjacent to the exhibit of the Liberty Bell, one of the best-known symbols of freedom in the world.

Repent America is an evangelistic organization based in Philadelphia whose leaders “know that there is a literal hell and a lake of fire where the unsaved will burn for all eternity; therefore, we act upon this truth without reservation and GO OUT into the communities of America declaring the Word of God and proclaiming the Good News.”

WND reported earlier when Marcavage brought, with the help of private practice attorney C. Scott Shields, a complaint against the government over the speech infringement. That case is on hold while the current case is on appeal.

Marcavage was restricted from preaching even though Komen Breast Cancer walkers were “utilizing the same sidewalk as a forum for expressing their opinions and viewpoints,” court records reveal.

“However, Mr. Marcavage was told that he couldn’t stand on the … block and express his viewpoint and was instead given a verbal permit to express his viewpoint in another part of the Independence Mall, far away from where the Breast Cancer walkers were expressing their viewpoint,” court records said.

Michael Marcavage

Marcavage told WND previously of the danger he believes the court precedent poses.

“If they shut down our ability to speak, they shut down the Gospel; they shut down any message. If the government prevails in this case, America’s experiment in liberty has finally reached its demise,” Marcavage said.

On his blog, Marcavage has noted that such government-mandated “free speech zones” are being established across the country in an effort by cities, colleges and other institutions to regulate free speech.

The blog cited a 2007 study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which found 259 of 346 colleges studied maintained such free speech restrictions.