City Employee Bans Church Members From Sharing Bible Tracts? ACLJ Stepped In and Defended Religious Liberty in a Big Win
Last week, the ACLJ obtained another victory for religious freedom. Here are the facts. In the late summer of this year, church members of a small community were peacefully distributing religious literature on public property at a public event when one of them was confronted by a city employee. The employee demanded that the member cease her protected First Amendment activities, or the police would be called. The city employee did not stop there. She also informed the member that religious leafleting was prohibited in all public areas of the city (a policy which flies in the face of the First Amendment).
The ACLJ immediately contacted city officials and outlined the clear and unequivocal First Amendment precedent which specifically prohibits the government from interfering with and/or abridging the freedom of speech and religious exercise under these circumstances. As we reminded the city, the church members’ place of distribution constitutes a “traditional public fora” or quintessential public forum. As the Supreme Court recognized long ago, the right of assembly in such places belongs to the people:
Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions. Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens. The privilege of a citizen of the United States to use the streets and parks for communication of views on national questions may be regulated in the interest of all; it is not absolute, but relative, and must be exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order; but it must not, in the guise of regulation, be abridged or denied.
Hague v. C.I.O., 307 U.S. 496, 515-16 (1939) (plurality opinion) (emphasis added). Once more, the Supreme Court has reiterated, time and again, the historic and fundamental value of tract distribution:
The hand distribution of religious tracts is an age-old form of missionary evangelism—as old as the history of the printing presses. It has been a potent force in various religious movements down through the years. . . . It is more than preaching; it is more than distribution of religious literature. It is a combination of both. Its purpose is as evangelical as the revival meeting. This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits.
Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 108-09 (1943), 319 U.S. at 108-09 (footnotes omitted).
The ACLJ informed the city that the employee’s conduct was illegal and requested immediate assurances that the city would not interfere again with the church members’ First Amendment rights. Fortunately, the city responded swiftly and assured us that the city employee was misinformed and now understands that a ban on the distribution of religious literature in the public square was inappropriate. The church members represented by the ACLJ can now return to their First Amendment activities without fear of harassment or interference.
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