Members of "Jews for Jesus" who were ordered not to hand out literature or even speak about Jesus on public property in Oyster Bay, N.Y., have reached a settlement with the city that will provide for them to exercise their First Amendment rights if they choose, according to a law firm.
The Alliance Defense Fund today announced it was asking that a lawsuit it had filed over the issue be dismissed because of the settlement reached with city officials.
The crackdown happened on July 25, 2006, when group members tried to enter John J. Burns Park to hand out literature and speak to people about their faith.
"Upon arrival, they were met by the commissioner of public safety for the town of Oyster Bay, who stated that the town supervisor had given him orders to call the police to issue an arrest summons if group members handed out even one piece of literature," the law firm reported.
"When one member noted that she was only interested in speaking about her faith, she was escorted from the park," the report said. "The officer stated, 'It's not even about the ordinance at this point; they just want you to leave.'"
"Members were also informed that there was no permit process for the distribution of literature in public parks and that they could face a citation for trespassing if patrons were 'offended' by the message," the ADF said.
One of the group's members who returned to the park on Aug. 1 of that year to continue her activities was "escorted from the area and charged with a violation of the town code," the law firm said.
Now, however, the settlement will provide for the free speech rights for Jews for Jesus.
"The government has no right to harass and threaten citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights in public," said Rick Nelson, of the American Liberties Institute and an attorney allied with the ADF. "We are pleased that Oyster Bay officials have agreed to respect the constitutional rights of members of Jews for Jesus, who can now express their faith publicly and without fear of arrest."
A report in the Massapequa Post confirmed that the town's code prohibited anyone "from making a speech, addressing, putting up signs or making any declaration or appeal of any kind or description … in any park or beach except by special permission of the town board."
However, the town provided no information on how to get that permission, or even any process to submit requests.
Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto told the newspaper officials soon realized that their blanket prohibition on free speech could create problems.
"We did a lot of homework and recognized that we had to revise our practices," he told the paper.