St. Petersburg, Fla., officials made good on their plan to limit free speech at the city’s homosexual festival this weekend by arresting five Christians for carrying signs “wider than their torsos” outside the officially designated protest area.

Pastor Billy Ball, Assistant Pastor Doug Pitts, Frankie Primavera and Josh Pettigrew, all of Faith Baptist Church in Primrose, Ga., were arrested today after leaving the area set aside by city officials for protest activities. Bill Holt, of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Jefferson, Ga., was also taken into custody.

According to Lighthouse Pastor Kevin Whitman, the five men were told by police their signs were not allowed outside the protest area because they were wider than their torsos. When the men refused to put them away, they were arrested for violating a controversial city ordinance that governs permitted events.

“We had police officers tell us bigger people could carry bigger signs than smaller people – it all depended on how big your torso was,” said Whitman, who, with several others, returned to the officially designated protest area rather than face arrest.

“Our signs were just standard foam-poster board,” he said. “Nothing big – maybe six inches wider than our torsos. If we had just rotated them, the police would have been OK with them. But then, you couldn’t read the message.”

Scene from today’s St. Petersburg ‘gay’ pride festival (Courtesy, Tampa Bay Times)

As WND reported, St. Petersburg officials, following disturbances at a previous homosexual pride festival, implemented rules governing outdoor events that set aside “free speech zones,” where protesters are allowed.

The resulting ordinance came under fire by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alliance Defense Fund for being too broad. It allows the city to create prior restraints of speech on an event-by-event basis, with virtually no predictable limits. It also criminalizes certain free speech behavior around public events and authorizes the police to enforce breaches of permits ? the penalty for such breaches being arrest.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sent a letter last Monday to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Charles Harmon calling for changes to both the city’s ordinance regarding the “free speech zones” and event-permit enforcement.

“This ordinance essentially gives the city the power to violate people’s rights on an event-by-event basis. It’s especially unlawful to tell people where they can speak or can’t, simply based on the viewpoint of the speaker or the content of the speech,” said Rebecca Harrison Steele, director of the ACLU of Florida’s West Central Office.

“The streets and sidewalks of the entire city should be a free speech zone for everyone,” Steele said.

While St. Petersburg officials dropped the term, “free speech zone,” the final modification made to the permit for the homosexual festival still retained the restrictive policy.

Demonstrators were permitted to use amplified sound and wave banners of any size, including in the restricted event area, only during the pride parade and for a few minutes before and after. During other times, they could be used only in the set-aside area. The policy for large signs and signs mounted on sticks restricted their bearers to the restricted zone.

According to Whitman, several of the demonstrators with him heard the police make several references to the “free speech zone” when telling protesters where they could stand.

Ball is no stranger to the conflict between homosexual activism and the First Amendment.

Doug Pitts preaching at 2007 Atlanta pride event

He and four other men were arrested last year at the Atlanta homosexual pride event for “criminal trespass” after walking, accompanied by several other pastors, within 300 yards of the Dyke Parade. The arresting officer, an avowed lesbian, responded to his inquiries about compelling governmental interest with an angry brush-off: “I’m not taking questions today, I’m giving orders.”

Within minutes, five of the men were handcuffed and locked in a stainless steel paddy wagon across the street, where they waited in 100-plus degree heat until they were paraded through an Atlanta precinct. Ball required medical attention after his stay in the steaming, unventilated paddy wagon, and said the men were required to remain handcuffed even when they needed to use the restroom.

After a night in the Fulton County jail, the men were released under the condition that they notify the city of Atlanta of their whereabouts every month. To Ball’s chagrin, the men have not yet been arraigned, their $2 million lawsuit is hung up in red tape, and a year later, the case has not even gone to trial. According to Ball’s wife, Sandra, the pastor continues to check in regularly with Atlanta officials.

Ball and other members of his church preached freely at the 2007 Atlanta pride event, but others who carried signs were threatened with arrest unless they moved to approved protest sites.

Ball and Pitts are also scheduled to appear in court in Hendersonville, N.C. on Monday for a March arrest for preaching on the street without a permit. Since the arrests and pastors’ stint in jail, Hendersonville has rescinded the old law that required the police chief to sign off before anyone delivered sermons or demonstrated on public grounds, including sidewalks and streets. The two pastors are hoping their case will now be dismissed.


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