Paul Johnson, a grandfather, just wanted to share his religious faith with people in his town, Sweetwater, Tennessee, so he went downtown for the Solar Eclipse Festival in August and stood on the side of the road to greet people.
His lawyers explain he did not “enter the parking lot adjacent to him or the portion of the festival where booths were set up but stayed on a public way.”
“He did not in any way obstruct traffic or cause any other problems.”
Such actions, however, have been determined by city officials to be a “demonstration” and, therefore, illegal without a permit.
And no one’s handing out permits.
That’s the basic outline of a demand letter from First Liberty and the Center for Religious Expression that was sent to Mayor Doyle Lowe, police chief Robert Byrum, city attorney John Cleveland and recorder Jessica Morgan.
The letter demands that the city change its practices and allow Johnson to read the Bible “on a public sidewalk without a permit.”
The letter notes that the ordinance designating ordinary discussion as a “demonstration” is 25 years old.
“Every American has the right to share earnestly held views in public,” said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. “No one should need government permission to preach.”
Chelsey Youman, counsel for First Liberty, said Johnson does not need permission from the government to express his faith in public.”
“The First Amendment is permission enough for any citizen in any city in America to peacefully read the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk,” Youman said. “The Sweetwater ordinance is overbroad, unconstitutional, and must be immediately changed or eliminated.”
The letter, dated Tuesday, contends Sweetwater’s permit scheme and its application and enforcement to ban Johnson from speaking on public ways during public events violates his constitutional rights.
“Because Johnson is eager to return to Sweetwater to share his religious beliefs with people attending public events, we respectfully request you provide written assurance – no later than three weeks from the date of this letter – that Sweetwater will allow him to peacefully share his religious beliefs at future events without imposing the unconstitutional permit requirement for ‘demonstrations’ on him,” the letter says.
“Should we not hear from you by the deadline, we must assume Sweetwater will continue to enforce its unconstitutional policy and practice, leaving Johnson with no other recourse but to pursue legal action.”
The legal teams said police told Johnson that “reading the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk fell within the definition of a ‘demonstration’ pursuant to an outdated city ordinance.”
“As such, Mr. Johnson would need a permit from the city to read the Bible on a public sidewalk. But, when Mr. Johnson applied for a permit, a city official arbitrarily denied his request.”
Johnson said he was “shocked that a city had a law banning anyone from reading the Bible on a public sidewalk without the city’s permission.”
“All I want to do is tell people about the love of Jesus by reading my Bible, but I was worried I might be arrested if I tried,” he said.
Johnson had been surprised by the attack on his speech during the August encounter.
“Concerned that city officials misunderstood his purpose, Johnson advised that he did not intend to enter the area where festival booths were located. But, Chief Byrum made clear that Johnson needed a permit to ‘demonstrate anywhere in the city of Sweetwater.’ Johnson then clarified that he was not demonstrating, merely sharing his faith, but Chief Byrum equated the two as the same, explaining that Johnson’s expression was considered a ‘demonstration.’ Johnson also sought clarity as to whether he could speak anywhere else in Sweetwater, but Chief Byrum responded that he could not do so anywhere within the city limits because he did not have a permit… After exhausting his options, and fearing arrest, Johnson agreed to cease his expression, and eventually left,” the letter says.
He then tried to get a permit but has “yet to receive a response” from the city to his request.
The lawyers point out to the city that the First Amendment protects such speech, and Johnson was trying to speak in what traditionally is a public forum.
“This forum status is not alterable at the leisure of the government,” they say.