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6th Circuit Holds for Christians Arrested in Dearborn Festival

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on May 27, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the City of Dearborn in a First Amendment case this week.

Dearborn, Michigan; once the home of Henry Ford, is now an American city with a population that is about 30 percent Arab-American, housing America's largest mosque.

First Amendment, large ethnic Arab population -- during this period of our country's history it doesn't take a legal genius to put the pieces of this puzzle together.

At issue this time was not a mosque controversy, it was a giant Arab party, the Arab International Festival, to be precise. And this time, the issue didn't involve masses of people wanting to keep Arab-Americans out; it involved masses of Arab-Americans wanting to keep certain people in.

Dearborn authorities arrested four members of a Christian group named "Acts 17 Apologetics" for allegedly breaching the peace at the Dearborn Festival when they tried to preach to the droves of Arab-Americans attending the festival. According to The Associated Press, the festival had offered Christian evangelist George Saieg a free booth in 2010, but he and his followers were barred from walking around freely on the sidewalks with literature trying to convert those Muslims in attendance to Christianity.

After this event, there were even some aspiring politicians who claim that the City of Dearborn officials were enforcing Shariah law by arresting the four missionaries.

But let's be clear here. The issue is not one of Shariah law. It's a garden variety First Amendment issue -- the type of issue you learn about in first-year law school.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the restriction imposed on Saieg and his disciples was unreasonable, considering the fact that other vendors and pedestrians were allowed on the sidewalks during the festival. Judges Karen Nelson Moore and Eric Clay wrote that "absent an injunction, Saieg will continue to suffer irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy at law."

In reaching its decision, the 6th Circuit looked at the First Amendment free speech issue under a three-prong test:

  1. Whether Saieg's conduct was "protected speech". As previous courts have ruled on the issue of the distribution of religious literature as protected speech, Saieg's conduct met this prong (see Murdock v. Pennsylvania).
  2. Whether the forum was a public or private forum. A public sidewalk is a public forum, the court noted, although there do exist limited exceptions (see Parks v. City of Columbus regarding sidewalks for post offices or military reservations).
  3. Whether the time, place and manner restrictions were proper (i.e. content neutral, narrowly tailored and leave open alternative channels of communication.)

Saieg will be attending the 2011 Arab Festival and this year, rumor has it that he will be joined by none other than Pastor Terry Jones, well know for adding to the debate over First Amendment jurisprudence by burning a Quran.

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