Local lawsuit has national implications on free exercise of religion

Georgene Rice interviews  Nate Kellum with the Alliance Defense Fund to discuss a Federal lawsuit they have filed regarding a free speech zone in Issaquah, Washington . A city ordinance, if left to stand, could have implications on the free exercise of religion in that community and other places as well.

Georgene: The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a local, small construction company owner who was prevented from freely handing out Christian literature in public areas of the Salmon Day’s Festival. He was threatened by police with arrest if he didn’t  confine handing out of his Gospel  tracts to two isolated “expression areas” located away from the event traffic. The lawsuit challenges the free speech zone ordinance.

Nate: What we are talking about here is the fundamental rights of an individual to share his/her beliefs with a fellow citizen. He was handing out the literature in a very nonthreatening way. He was told he could only hand out the information in the designated “expression areas”, but the irony of these areas is that there is no one there in which to share expression.

Georgene: He was not accused of being obnoxious. From what I understand there were no complaints from his fellow residents in Issaquah. Tell us about this “expression area” that was established as a City Ordinance.

Nate: As you mentioned, he was not breaking any laws, except having violated this one city code. Section 5.40 prohibits literature distribution during this Salmon Day’s Festival, except for in those two expression areas. That is what was enforced against him.

Georgene: What is the point of the lawsuit?

Nate: It is really just to pave the way for this man to have the right to go into the public and share his views. His views happen to be the Gospel. He wants to share the Gospel, as many Christians are called to do. He does this in a very effective and nonthreatening way—handing out tracts to anyone who wants to take one. The lawsuit is about giving him the freedom to go to public ways and share his beliefs.

Georgene: How do you counter the argument that they recognize his freedom to speak and have designated a spot to do just that?

Nate: The right to free speech is not just the ability to speak but also the ability to reach an audience.  If he is not able to reach an audience, his right to free speech is nullified. When he is forced to go into these “expression areas” he is not given that opportunity. He went into the expression areas but there was no one there due to their isolated location. It’s important to note that the areas where he chose to hand out the literature was on public streets and sidewalks that are public throughout the year, and remain public, even during these Festival times.

Georgene: How strong a case is this likely to be? As I’ve mentioned, this is a Federal lawsuit. Who hears the case and what is likely to happen?

Nate: It comes before a Federal judge. I’d like to think it is a very solid case because it is directly in line with the importance of the 1st Amendment and the Free Speech Clause. The Free Speech Clause is all about the ability of the citizen to share their views in public. There is case after case, particularly at the Supreme Court level, that recognizes these constitutional rights.

Georgene: I appreciate you and other groups who defend the right of people to freely live their faith in this current culture. Your website gives us an overview of some of the challenges that Believers are facing  to simply exercise these freedoms,  not by our government, but as inalienable rights.

Nate: You hit on the operative word there— “inalienable”—that is “God given”.  We need to see that these God given rights are protected.

UPDATE: News release dated Oct. 6, 2011 – Christian man wins lawsuit against City of Issaquah

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