Street preachers sue Oregon city, claiming First Amendment violations

Thursday, March 9, 2000

A group of self-described Christian street preachers has sued an Oregon city mayor and several police officers for allegedly hampering their preaching in certain public squares.

Represented by a Portland attorney, Daniel Lee, Michael Carr, Edward Gathright and Jeremy Sonnier have accused Mayor Vera Katz and a slew of other city officials of impinging upon their free-speech and religious-liberty rights during several months last year.

Spencer M. Neal, the preachers’ attorney, argues in a 17-page federal complaint that police have ordered all four of the men at one time or another to stop preaching and that some have been arrested for refusing.

“Plaintiffs are a group of evangelical Christians who, as a central part of the practice of their faith, engage in ‘open air preaching,’” Neal wrote. “As a consequence of their exercise of their [religious] beliefs, however, they have been subjected to a pattern and practice of harassment, exclusion from public property and even arrested by defendants whom they allege violate their rights under the first amendment to the United States Constitution to freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” as well as other fundamental rights.

Neal’s complaint also alleges several incidents in which police either ignored hecklers of the preachers, arrested the preachers or told them to keep quiet.

Last April, according to the complaint, Gathright was “spat upon” by a passerby while preaching in a public area known as the Rose Quarter. Neal argues that two Portland police officers witnessed the incident and, instead of arresting the passerby on an assault charge, ordered Gathright to stop preaching. When Gathright continued preaching the Gospel, the police officers, Neal said, arrested him for disorderly conduct. Neal, however, noted that Gathright never filed a complaint against the officers or the city for what he perceived as a violation of his fundamental rights.

Last June another of the preachers, Sonnier, was accosted at Waterfront park by two officers, according to the group’s complaint. Sonnier, holding a sign that read, “Fear God, Trust Jesus, Read the Bible, Turn from Sin, Turn to Jesus,” and attempting to pass out religious tracts, was taken into custody after he refused to produce identification. Sonnier was also barred from the park for 30 days.

Portland ordinances on speech in public places have been challenged before by a street preacher. In 1995, U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty ruled in Rohman v. City of Portland that a speech law for Pioneer Courthouse Square, which is one of the public sites the group of preachers has attempted to use, was unconstitutional.

That “free speech policy” for the Pioneer Courthouse had stated, “Speakers who intend to communicate with users of the Square beyond the Speaker’s immediate vicinity must use the Public Speech Area and comply” with certain procedures. Ron Rohman, a minister, sued the city, saying the ordinance limited his religious need “to spread the Gospel.” Rohman testified that he preached in a loud voice, but not a confrontational one.

Haggerty ruled that Rohman’s “preaching of the Gospel is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment,” and that the city’s reasons to limit preaching in the public square were spurious. The city argued its policy was needed to protect the public place from “excessive noise,” and that permitting Rohman to continue preaching in the forum would lead a “reasonable observer” to believe the city was advancing Christianity in violation of the establishment clause.

The judge forbade enforcement of the city policy at Pioneer Courthouse, concluding that it had “selected a means of combating excessive noise in the Square which appears to be substantially broader than necessary to achieve the desired result.”

Neal now wants a federal judge to enjoin the city from arresting or harassing the street preachers at the public squares and to award them compensatory and punitive damages.

Neal returned a call about the lawsuit only to say that he was “too busy” to discuss the case.

Meanwhile, Harry Auerbach, Portland’s senior deputy attorney, said he had not fully absorbed the accusations in the complaint and could not comment. He told The Oregonian, however, that the city did not “have any law that says you can’t stand up in public and preach with a Bible in your hand.”