Federal judge bars Secret Service from stopping prayer vigil for Cuban boy

Monday, April 24, 2000

Christian Defen...
Christian Defense Coalition Rev. Patrick Mahoney, center, Brandi Swindell, left, and Susanne Abdalla partake in prayer vigil outside Cuban Interests Section in Washington April 22 after Eliá González was reunited with his father, Juan Miguel.

A federal judge issued an order late last week barring the Secret Service
from stopping a Christian group from praying on a public sidewalk near the Cuban
Interests Section of the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney and other members of the Christian Defense Coalition
don’t want to see Elián González returned to Cuba, and for almost a week have
been conducting prayer vigils for the Cuban boy on a public sidewalk adjacent to
the Swiss embassy. The Secret Service, however, on the evening of April 18 told
Mahoney that the sidewalk had been closed for security reasons and threatened
him and other members of the group with arrest. The Secret Service also informed
Mahoney that the public sidewalk would remain closed until the González; matter
was resolved.

On April 19, the group, represented by the American Center for Law and
Justice, sued the federal government in a D.C. court seeking a declaration that
the group’s free-speech and religious-liberty rights had been violated by the
Secret Service and an injunction barring the government from any further threats
of arrest.

“The religious faith of Mahoney [and the CDC members] compels them to conduct
prayer vigils for the safety and liberty of Elián González on the public
sidewalk immediately adjacent to the Cuban Interests Section,” the American
Center for Law and Justice argued in its 20-page complaint.

Lawyers for the federal government argued April 21 in court that the Secret
Service has statutory authority to make sure areas surrounding foreign
diplomatic missions are kept safe. The ACLJ cited a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court
ruling in Boos v. Barry that said dispersal of groups of people within
500 feet of a foreign mission or embassy may be ordered “only when the police
reasonably believe that a threat to the security or peace of the embassy is

Late on April 21, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy issued a temporary
restraining order barring the Secret Service from blocking Mahoney and his group
from holding prayer vigils for Elián. The restraining order is in effect for 10
days, “but may be extended for good cause,” the two-page order states.

The federal government “shall not issue or threaten to issue any citation,
summons, or other process, or arrest or threaten to arrest, any plaintiff
participating in peaceful activity on the public sidewalk adjacent to the Cuban
Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland,” Kennedy wrote.

Jim Henderson, a senior ACLJ attorney, said he was “thrilled” with the
court’s ruling.

Henderson added that Mahoney and other members of the Christian Defense
Coalition were able to pray for Elián on the public sidewalk on April 22.
Henderson said his group would continue to seek a court declaration that the
Secret Service’s actions of last week were unconstitutional and a permanent
injunction against any future threats of arrest.

A call to Scott Harris, counsel with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C.,
which is representing the federal government, was not returned.