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The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a self-described "professing Evangelical Christian" has a First Amendment right to distribute copies of the Bible at a gay pride festival.
The 2-1 panel ruling reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who ruled last year that the Park Board had made reasonable provisions for Brian Johnson to distribute Bibles at the Twin Cities Pride Festival, which takes place each June.
The Park Board rules would have confined Johnson to distributing the Bibles at a booth in Loring Park outside the festival area as well as leaving them at a "material drop area" within the festival grounds -- far from the action of the pride festivities.
The Board contended that restricting literature distribution to booths during the Festival was narrowly tailored to serve its significant interest in crowd control and public safety. It claimed literature distribution from outside of booths increases congestion and congestion impedes emergency, security, and delivery vehicles.
While affirming the rule that controlling crowds constitutes a significant governmental interest that is directly related to public safety, the circuit panel concluded that the Board failed to provide sufficient evidence to remove it from an abstract concern.
Instead, the panel ruled that Johnson's distribution of Bibles is well-established protected speech in a traditional public forum and the Board's restrictions would cause him to suffer irreparable harm because a "loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury."
At the end, the court granted a preliminary injunction that favored Johnson because the government's interest wasn't sufficient, Johnson would suffer the irreparable harm of the loss of First Amendment freedom, and the injunction was in the public's interest.
Siding with the lower court's ruling, Circuit Judge Kermit Bye believed Johnson's First Amendment rights weren't intact because he was not prevented from distributing literature during the Festival -- he was merely restricted to doing so at designated locations.
In Bye's opinion, the Park Board's crowd control concern was well-grounded. He also asserted the Board provided "ample alternative channels of communication" for Johnson to present his message to festival attendees, including walking throughout the park, wearing clothing expressing his beliefs, holding signs, approaching attendees and conversing with those willing to engage with him, and pointing out where they could get a free Bible.
Despite the win, Brian Johnson won't feel much of a direct impact from the decision right away since he's been doling out The Word all this while. In both 2012 and 2013, the Eighth Circuit granted Johnson injunctions, which rendered the Park Board unable to enforce its restrictions.
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