Two Christian evangelists were arrested in West Windsor, New Jersey early Tuesday morning after preaching the Gospel without obtaining permission and for attempting to record the encounter with police.
Robert Parker and Don Karns state that they have been preaching at the Princeton Junction train station for several years, which is a part of the New Jersey Transit system, a provider of public transportation.
They explained to Christian News Network that after they had finished preaching and witnessing to those waiting for trains, and were leaving, they were approached by Sergeant Kathleen Shanahan and Officer Sandy Crowe. Parker and Karns said that Shanahan was “extremely hostile.”
The officers stated that the evangelists had violated the law for speaking at the train station without a “permit,” and demanded identification. Parker and Karns attempted to record the encounter with their cell phones, but were ordered to turn them off, which they did.
“[Sergeant Shanahan] started repeatedly saying, ‘Put the phone down; put the phone down,'” Karns recounted. “You guys are big guys, and I’m just a little officer. You know how scary it is when you have a camera in your hand. How do I know you’re not terrorists? I have no way of knowing that’s not a bomb.”
Karns said that Shanahan explained that she had just been to a class last week which showed cell phones being used as weapons, and informed the men that it was against the law for them to film her. She later told Parker that she also had concerns about his backpack, which was searched for train tickets after it was confiscated by police.
While Parker provided identification, Karns asserted his right to privacy. Parker’s ID was not acceptable to the officers.
“She demanded ID, and I said, ‘What law am I breaking?’ and she said, ‘I’m going to take you to jail,'” Parker remembered.
The men were then taken into custody and transported to be booked and charged. As they were separated, Parker states that he overheard the officers disagreeing over which cell to place him in.
“There’s a pervert in there; we’ll put him in that one,” he heard Shanahan say.
The evangelists spent three hours in jail and now face criminal proceedings for three offenses: defiant trespass, and two counts of obstruction for recording with a cell phone and declining to provide identification.
“They treated us like terrorists,” Karns stated.
Allen Kratz, the Director of Revenue Contract Programs for New Jersey Transit, explained that those who wish to engage in any type of free speech activity at the public train station must first obtain a “certificate of registration,” and even then, they may only stand in specified free speech zones. The New Jersey Administrative Code outlines that a “certificate of registration” is required for “the public exercise of free speech rights … which concern political, social, religious or other issues … includ[ing], but is not limited to, leafleting, public speaking, solicitation of signatures and comments…”
When Kratz was asked how the regulation applies to those engaged in religious or political speech while waiting for trains, he was not able to provide a clear answer.
Parker and Karns told Christian News Network that no such requirement has been imposed upon them in the past.
“The right to free speech is under attack today,” said John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a nationally-recognized legal organization, which will be providing legal assistance to the evangelists. “The Supreme Court has said you cannot ban public speech,” he added, citing that two significant rulings exist pertaining to free speech at similar transportation venues such as airports.
“What Robert Parker and Dons Karns are doing is very important,” he said. “I encourage people to get out there, whatever it is they want to talk about.”
Whitehead also explained that the nation’s highest court has declared that citizens have a right to anonymity, as well as to record police behavior.
“The police do not like to be recorded, but we have a right to record them because they’re our employees,” he said. “If bombs record, that’s a new invention. … It sounds like a stupid excuse.”
Parker and Karns both stated that they had a very pleasant experience preaching at the train station just two weeks prior, which was much different from yesterday’s incident. One bystander gave them a thumbs up, and a police officer wished them a nice day.
The preachers are scheduled to appear in West Windsor Municipal Court on July 10th.
Editor’s note: Those wishing to express concern should call Police Chief Christopher Prucillo at 973-491-8555 and/or email [email protected]