Cop’s right to protect gospel preachers asserted in court

By Brian Fitzpatrick

Photo from Facebook page “Kutztown University Students Against Repent America Demonstrations”

Does a police officer have the right to disobey an order that would cause him to violate the constitutional rights of, say, a Christian open-air preacher at a public university?

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys today argued a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, one step below the Supreme Court, that could establish the legal precedent that police officers have the same right to disobey illegal orders as members of the military.

“Armbruster v. Cavanaugh is an important case,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tom Marcelle. “A police officer takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. If he has that obligation, he also has a right to refuse to uphold orders that cause him to violate the very Constitution he is sworn to defend.

“Whether you’re talking about the Nazis at Nuremberg or police officers at Kent State, courts have recognized in certain circumstances a police officer has a duty not to obey an unlawful or unconstitutional order. The difference is, at Kent State life was at issue. We argued that life is protected by the Constitution, but liberty is also. An order to deprive someone of liberty is no different from an order to take someone’s life,” he said.

“If a soldier or a police officer performs in an unlawful way, he can never tell a judge, ‘I did this because I was ordered to do it.’ Following orders is never a defense. Therefore police officers have a right to disobey orders that are not constitutional and not fear retribution from superiors,” he said.

In April, 2007, Kutztown University campus police officer Steven Armbruster refused to obey an order from his chief to “push” a peaceful group of evangelists off campus.

Approximately 15 members of Repent America, a Philadelphia-based evangelical Christian ministry, came to KU that day as part of the group’s annual “Pro-Life Evangelism Tour” of nearby college campuses.

“Our tour travels through Pennsylvania to educate students about the realities of abortion and to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said RA Director Michael Marcavage. “We talk to students and display signs. While we were setting up we were immediately met by some aggressive students who were acting very irrationally.”

Marcavage told WND that RA was not aware the school was also celebrating a pro-homosexual “day of silence.”

According to ADF’s fact sheet, “About 300 protesters from several organizations and clubs appeared on the scene and loudly opposed the message, causing KU President F. Javier Cevallos and the chief of the KU Police Dept., William Mioskie, to insist the Christian group leave campus.”

Michael Marcavage

“The students upset with the message were demanding that we leave. Because the police didn’t affirm our right to be there it became quite the scene,” said Marcavage. “Armbruster had been ordered to ‘push’ us off the campus by the chief of campus police. The president of KU demanded it. He told the chief he didn’t want us on the campus.”

“Armbruster explained to Mioskie that he believed such action would violate the group’s civil rights,” according to ADF. “Mioskie immediately relieved Armbruster of his duties and told him to leave the scene while other officers executed his orders.”

Armbruster was suspended without pay for five days, and warned he could be fired “if he made a similar decision in the future.”

“Steve stood up for our right to speak freely in a public forum on a public campus,” Marcavage told WND. “It takes an honorable man to do such things, to stand for our right to speak in spite of what his supervisor, the chief of police, was trying to do. I’m greatly blessed and thankful that we have men willing to stand for our right to preach the gospel.”

Marcelle expects a decision from the Third Circuit Court within 60 days. He added ADF is prepared to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

The First Amendment right to preach the gospel and to speak frankly about issues like homosexuality and abortion continues to meet resistance on U.S. college campuses.

At KU, a student reacted to RA’s campus visit in October 2010 by creating a Facebook page called “Kutztown University Students Against Repent America Demonstrations.” The page quickly attracted more than 200 members.

“This group is not to promote or deny a woman’s right to choose an abortion, nor is it to support or denounce the right or wrongness of our homosexual students,” says the page. “The group is here to stand out against the vicious verbally threatening assaults on Kutztown.”

“I don’t know what that last statement concerns,” Marcavage replied. “Our dialogue is not to threaten or do what they’re saying there. We have found that people will lie about us and our ministry. We come wanting to have a good discussion with the students. There are always going to be those who are angry and throw temper tantrums because they’re not having their way and someone is saying they have to repent of their sins. That’s the natural response of sinful man. At Kutztown, the president sends out an e-mail every year to students disfavoring us, saying we have a right to speak but discouraging the students from talking with us.”

Last fall, WND reported about a group of students from a Minnesota university who invaded the worship service of a pastor in retaliation for his evangelistic visits to campus.

Repent America has also met resistance from the U.S. Department of Justice.

A May 2007 RA news release claims that a DOJ spokesman characterized RA as a “fundamentalist hate group” while teaching a class for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a network of 14 publicly owned universities including Kutztown. The class, “Mediation and Conflict Resolution Skills for Law Enforcement,” taught campus police officers to mediate a hypothetical conflict between evangelists and upset homosexuals by “removing the Christians, instead of affirming their constitutional rights to be on a public campus.” 

As reported by WND, members of the DOJ Civil Rights Division attending a homosexual rally in Philadelphia in October 2004 “advised police on the scene” who arrested 11 RA members preaching the gospel. The “Philadelphia 11” were charged with “hate crimes,” but the charges were eventually dismissed.