Bob Unruh joined WND in 2006 after nearly three decades with the Associated Press, as well as several Upper Midwest newspapers, where he covered everything from legislative battles and sports to tornadoes and homicidal survivalists. He is also a photographer whose scenic work has been used commercially.More ↓Less ↑
New Orleans’ Bourbon Street is home to Mardis Gras, Southern Decadence, open containers of alcohol and just about anything else you can imagine, especially from sundown to sunup.
Except the Christian message.
That’s because of the city’s “Religious Speech Ban,” which is in effect between the sunset and sunrise hours on the famous center for jazz and festivals.
“Those who violate section 54-419 by engaging in religious, political or social speech ‘shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined not more than $500, and/or imprisoned for not more than six months,’” according to a lawsuit filed over the controversial restriction.
City officials did not respond to a WND request for comment.
The controversy was brought to a head by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the case on behalf of Pastor Paul Gros of Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church at 433 Daupine Street, just a block off of Bourbon.
For 30 years, he’s periodically gone to the French Quarter community center to preach the message of Jesus.
“Pastor Gros shares his faith in various ways. Sometimes he preaches; other times he hands out tracts and/or carries portable signs. But more than any other way, Pastor Gros likes to engage individuals in respectful, one-on-one discussion about Jesus and the Christian faith.”
Until he was ordered to be quiet by police.
The pastor’s periodic visits came to an abrupt halt May 15.
“Around 9:30 p.m. Pastor Gros and his group were stopped from engaging in religious discussion. Upon receiving the order to stop, Pastor Gros asked to speak to the highest-ranking police officer and was directed to Officer [M.J.] Field. Officer Field confirmed that the law precluded any Christian speech on Bourbon Street at night,” according to ADF.
Field cited an “aggressive solicitation” ordinance sponsored by council member Kristin Palmer.
“Because of the existence of the Religious Speech Ban and the penalties prescribed for violating it, Pastor Gros did not attend the Southern Decadence event that occurred this past Labor Day weekend. He feared arrest. And Pastor Gros soon learned that his fear was well-founded, discovering that several people communicating a religious message were arrested or threatened with arrest for violating 54-419.”
Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Joseph La Rue argued religious speech “is just as important, and just as protected by the First Amendment, as speech about any other subject at any time of day.”
“New Orleans cannot make criminals of people simply because they want to talk about their faith,” he said.
The ordinance adopted by Mayor Mitch Landrieu last year bans congregating on Bourbon Street “for the purpose of disseminating any social, political, or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise.”
The lawsuit, which also seeks an injunction halting enforcement of the ban, charges the prohibition “is unconstitutional on its face and as applied.”
“It is a content-based restriction on speech but is not narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest,” the complaint states.
La Rue says city officials in New Orleans “have chosen to criminalize speech about faith while allowing just about every other conceivable topic to be discussed and exposed.”
“It’s not up to the government to decide the topics we can and cannot discuss,” he said. “The First Amendment protects an individual’s freedom of speech.”
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Named as defendants are the mayor, council members, police superintendent and others.