Pride Festival tries to bar evangelist

6:42 AM, Jun 24, 2010   |    comments
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  • Brian Johnson
  • Twin Cities Pride Festival

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twin Cities Pride Festival organizers are turning to the federal court to keep an evangelist from preaching at the event this weekend.

It has become a First Amendment debate over a popular Minneapolis park.

At issue is evangelist Brian Johnson's right to distribute bibles and his message about God and Christianity during the Twin Cities Pride Festival in Loring Park.

On the other side of the issue is the right of festival organizers to say no.

The festival spotlights the local gay community and Johnson actually had a booth there for several years.

Last year, his request for a booth was denied. He and his family were arrested for trespassing, but the charges were ultimately dropped. Johnson's booth application was denied again this year.

Still, Johnson says he should be able to enter park grounds to give out literature anyway, accusing pride organizers of discriminating against him based on his religious views. KARE 11 spoke with Johnson by phone. He lives in Hayward, Wisconsin.

"They are renting it to use it, that's true, but it is open to the public and I am part of the public," says Johnson. He says in all the years he has attended the event, he has never caused or tried to cause a disturbance.

Festival organizers say they can keep Johnson out because they paid the park board $36,000 for a permit to use the park allowing them, they believe, to exclude anyone they want.

They say Johnson is welcome to attend, but because of the permit, he has to play by their rules.

"We have in the past always understood that we can treat it like private property and if someone comes on that is not following our rules...we can have them removed," says Jim Kelley of the Twin Cities Pride Festival.

The Minneapolis Park Board doesn't agree and won't prevent Johnson from attending erring, officials say, on the side of free speech.

Festival organizers will ask a federal judge to step in.

"That is the clash that is going on here between two different senses of what the First Amendment is protecting," says David Schultz, a Constitutional law expert at Hamline University. Shultz says in general, city parks are considered public forums, a space where anyone can express their views.

But in some cases when a city issues a use permit, that public forum can become private.

"That is the issue here. If this park or this area of the park has become a private forum, then they are allowed to say people who don't agree with us, who take different positions, we don't have to let come to our party," says Schultz.

Attorneys for the pride festival have asked the federal court to reverse the park board's decision that allows Johnson to distribute literature in Loring Park during the event this weekend. The court is expected to hold a hearing before the end of the week and make a decision.

Professor Schultz says the Supreme Court has in the past ruled that permits can turn public places into private forums.

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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