A trial is scheduled to begin today in Elmira, N.Y., and lawyers for the defendants say it will be a test of whether the First Amendment affirmations of freedom of speech and freedom of religion still are valid in the United States.
“Choosing to exercise your First Amendment rights in a public place is not a crime,” Joel Oster, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund said. “The government has no right to arrest citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights in public.”
At issue is the arrest of several Christians at a “gay pride” event is Wisner Park in Elmira in 2007. Julian and Gloria Raven and several others entered the park to pray silently for the participants of the event celebrating homosexual behavior.
Officials with the ADF noted that the materials advertising the event said everyone was invited and it was open to the public. “The group did not draw a disorderly response from event participants,” the ADF said.
However, an Elmira police sergeant had told the group they were banned from the park. They were not allowed to “cross the street, enter the park, or share their religion with anyone in the park,” according to the ADF.
The group’s members later were arrested and accused of “disorderly conduct.”
“It seems oxymoronic to say that by walking silently in a public park, with heads bowed, these people somehow disturbed the peace,” Oster said. “From the sit-ins of the 1960s to today, courts have repeatedly ruled that the police cannot arrest those who peacefully express their message in public places.”
While the facts of the case make it seem relatively minor, the ADF said the issue is nothing less than the United States’ freedoms of speech and religion.
“If this violation of these Christians’ rights is allowed to stand, the First Amendment rights of all people of faith are in jeopardy,” the ADF said.
Assistant Police Chief Mike Robertson told WND that the members were accused of a “combination” of allegations, including the “intent” to cause a public inconvenience, a “disturbance” of a meeting of persons and obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic.
He also said at the time that the accusations would include taking part in “any act that serves no legitimate purpose.”
Raven had told WND his group assembled to pray for three hours the night before Elmira’s “pride” festival in promotion of the homosexual lifestyle.
“We have a legal right to be at an event held in a public square. We’re not a hate group,” he said. “We’re Christians and we’re going to be there to pray.”
He said he contacted police, who told him he had no free speech rights in the public park.
“The female officer, she said, ‘You’re not going to cross the street. You’re not going to enter the park and you’re not going to share your religion with anybody in this park,'” he told WND.
“When she said that, for the first time in my life as a Christian, I felt now my freedom of speech is threatened or challenged,” he said. “I was being told I could not share my religion with anybody in that park.”
Raven said he told the officer “she was violating the Constitution that she had sworn to uphold, and she was very agitated and adamant, and couldn’t look me straight in the eye.”
Raven asked for the justification for such a threat and was not given a response.
He said his team of Christians then went into the park, and they were arrested within three or four minutes.
He said if the situation is left unchallenged, the city of Elmira will be in the position of being able to control the content of people’s messages in a lawful assembly – or even thoughts if they are nearby.
“We didn’t say boo to a goose, still we were arrested,” he said.
The local newspaper reported the arrests came just “moments” after Elmira Mayor John Tonello delivered a speech “celebrating diversity.”
And the actions prompted some immediate criticism from newspaper readers.
“I was appalled and disgusted by the gay stories strewn through the paper. What was even more disturbing was the way the city acted. Since when is it illegal to sit on the ground in a public park and recite Bible verses? Are they not protected by the same Constitution that allows gay people to have their gay pride event. These Bible thumpers had their constitutional right to free speech and assembly trampled on by the city. They should not have been arrested,” said Kevin Raznoff.
Robertson told WND the Christians “certainly” have a right to assemble, but not on public property when there’s an “organized” event there. Asked repeatedly about how the “disturbance” statute relates to First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, he did not answer.
“Obviously, they caused a disruption to an event that was taking place,” he said.
But Raven confirmed to WND the Christians did not approach a single person, did not speak to anyone and did not even make any audible statements until after they were arrested.
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