For over a decade, Brian Johnson has peaceably passed out Bibles during Minneapolis’ Twin Cities Pride Festival, but if he tries it again this year, he fears, he could be arrested.
Through some clever legal wrangling, Twin Cities Pride, the organizers of the annual festival celebrating homosexuality, have convinced the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to allow them to exile anyone attempting to distribute Bibles or communicate unapproved messages at the event to a “no pride zone” far away from the festivities.
Now Johnson is filing a federal lawsuit against the Board, claiming it can’t banish First Amendment free speech rights to a 10′ x 10′ square off the beaten path, especially during a major public event in which organizers have a non-exclusive permit to use the park.
“The government should not be exiling free speech, it should be protecting it,” said Nate Kellum, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is assisting Johnson. “It’s ridiculous to say that the only place where people can hand out Bibles is an area where there’s no one to hand Bibles to. The Constitution simply does not permit the board to relegate free speech to isolated regions where no one can receive the message. That’s not free speech at all. It’s pure censorship.”
Johnson began attending the Pride Fest in 1995, freely offering Bibles and conversation about the love of Jesus Christ and salvation, but never, he says, a message of confrontation or condemnation of homosexuality.
“Over the years, [I have] come across many individuals in the GLBT community who have expressed disdain and distrust for organized religion,” Johnson asserts in documents filed with the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, “and [I want] those individuals to know the real Jesus.”
In 1998, Johnson even began renting a booth every year at Pride Fest, so he’d have a central place to distribute Bibles and his message of God’s salvation for all sinners, regardless of what sins they may commit.
Pride Fest, a two-day event that convenes at Loring Park, the city’s largest, has been an annual happening for over 30 years and draws upward of 200,000 people with its multiple stages of live events and carnival-like atmosphere – a perfect place, Johnson says, “to reach as many people as possible with [the] message of good news.”
But in 2009, Twin Cities Pride denied Johnson’s application for a booth and further confronted him and his family when they arrived at the park to distribute Bibles through the crowd. City police then showed up and arrested Johnson for trespassing, though the charges were subsequently dropped.
Twin Cities Pride then sued the Park Board themselves, seeking an injunction and restraining order against Johnson distributing Bibles.
According to a KARE-TV report, lawyers for Twin Cities Pride said if the Board allowed Johnson into the park during the festival, it would violate a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held private organizations with a permit to use a public street for expressive purposes cannot be compelled by the government to include a group whose message contradicts the organizer’s.
Eileen Scallen, co-counsel to Pride Fest argued the Board’s refusal to stop Johnson would be “akin to allowing the Klu Klux Klan to openly convey their racist and anti-immigration views at the Cinco de Mayo festival.”
But Johnson claims the analogy doesn’t hold true for his ministry.
“Johnson had no interest in participating in – or interfering with – Pride Fest
activities,” his lawsuit claims. “He only wanted to express his message via Bible distribution, a message distinct from the festival itself. Johnson only wanted to hand out Bibles and talk about Jesus.”
Furthermore, his lawsuit states, “While engaging in conversations with individuals attending Pride Fest, Johnson has always made a conscious effort to avoid any discussion about the propriety of homosexuality. He does not go there to condemn anyone. He focuses on the reality that all people sin – whether involved homosexual behavior or not – and thus all need Jesus.”
Apparently, the District Court agreed with Johnson, for it refused the restraining order and ruled not only would the Board not violate the festival’s rights by allowing Johnson to distribute Bibles, but also granting the Twin Cities Pride injunction would, in fact, violate Johnson’s First Amendment rights.
The District Court did suggest in a footnote, however, that Twin Cities Pride could set up “free speech zones,” a suggestion that the organization promptly jumped upon.
In May 2011, the Board – without Johnson’s input – settled the Twin Cities Pride lawsuit by agreeing to allow two concessions: First, the event organizers could restrict any unauthorized literature distribution to an unmanned giveaway table within the festival, and second, Twin Cities Pride could establish a “free speech zone” for booths whose message was rejected by event organizers.
Twin Cities Pride promptly publicized the “free speech zone” as a “no pride zone” and designated its spot.
But according to Johnson’s lawsuit, the zone “is placed away from all of the routes and pathways entering Loring Park. … A booth outside of the Pride Fest event did not allow Johnson to reach his intended audience (those attending Pride Fest) with his message via Bibles.”
Furthermore, the suit contends, “The drop-off zone for materials was equally unsuitable because Johnson wanted to supply the Bibles himself, assuring that interested individuals would receive the Bibles (instead of being destroyed or thrown away) and that he would be available to converse with anyone who was interested in his Bible message.”
The net effect of the settlement, Johnson’s suit claims, is not only the banishment of Bible distribution from the event, but also exile for those that would speak of Jesus.
ADF-allied attorney Stan Zahorsky is serving as local counsel in the case, Johnson v. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.
The next Pride Fest is scheduled for June 23 and 24, 2012.