A pastor that was threatened with arrest for preaching on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street after sunset has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s Aggressive Solicitation ordinance, and is seeking a preliminary injunction against its enforcement.
Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a complaint in district court yesterday on behalf of Pastor Paul Gros, stating that the ordinance prevents him from engaging in evangelistic activity due to the threat of arrest.
“The Religious Speech Ban and the fear of arrest it induces severely limits Pastor Gros’s constitutionally protected expression on a public street,” the complaint outlined. “Because of the existence of the Religious Speech Ban and the penalties prescribed for violating it, Pastor Gros did not attend the Southern Decadence event that occurred this past Labor Day weekend on September 1, 2012. He feared arrest. And Pastor Gros soon learned that his fear was well-founded, discovering that several people communicating a religious message were arrested or threatened with arrest for violating §54-419.”
Gros pastors Vieux Carre Assembly of God, located just one block from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. He states that he has been involved in public evangelism on Bourbon Street for thirty years out of his desire to reach the lost.
“Because Pastor Gros firmly believes a large number of people found on Bourbon Street at night desperately need to have saving faith in Jesus Christ, he wants to go there at that time and share the Gospel message with them,” the complaint noted. “Pastor Gros has no intent to harass anyone, encourage violence, or to express himself in any way other than in a peaceful manner.”
Bourbon Street is known as the center of nightlife in New Orleans, and is recognized for its preponderance of bars and strip clubs. It is largely unfrequented during the day, but at night, thousands of patrons fill the street.
Gros believes that the City’s passage of its Aggressive Solicitation ordinance, which was approved by New Orleans City Council last October, wrongfully infringes upon the constitutional right to freedom of speech. The statute largely focuses on the prohibition of panhandling after sunset, along with other forms of begging, but includes one sentence that also forbids any type of free speech.
“It shall be prohibited for any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose disseminating any social, political, or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise,” the ordinance declares.
“The New Orleans Religious Speech Ban, set out in section 54-419 of the New Orleans City Code, serves to chill and deter Pastor Gros’s expression,” ADF opined.
Reports outline that former mayoral candidate Leo Watermiller complained to officials earlier this year that “religious demonstrators” were still present on Bourbon Street on Friday and Saturday nights, and that police have not been enforcing the ordinance.
However, Gros says that this past May, while he and his wife, another pastor and a friend were witnessing after dark on the street, they were threatened with arrest.
“Upon receiving the order to stop, Pastor Gros asked to speak to the highest-ranking police officer and was directed to Officer [M. J.] Field. Officer Field confirmed that the law precluded any Christian speech on Bourbon Street at night. Pastor Gros inquired of the basis for this order, and he was subsequently shown on a smart phone the text of the Aggressive Solicitation ordinance, with his attention being directed to the provision banning religious expression between hours of sunset and sunrise,” documents filed in federal court yesterday explained.
David Johnson, one of the many Christians that regularly witness on Bourbon Street, prays with a man that he had been witnessing to.
“Religious speech is just as important, and just as protected by the First Amendment, as speech about any other subject at any time of day,” said ADF attorney Joseph La Rue, who is acting as co-lead counsel. “New Orleans cannot make criminals of people simply because they want to talk about their faith.”
As previously reported, last Friday night, six Christians with RAVEN Ministries were arrested while ministering on Bourbon Street and three were charged with violating the city’s Aggressive Soliciation ordinance. Pastor Troy Bohn and two of his associates appeared in court on Wednesday for their arraignment, where a trial date was officially set for October 31st. The Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, Virginia will be representing the three men.
Bohn’s son-in-law, Joshua Rowden, who was originally arrested in July under an alleged noise violation, but later charged under the Aggressive Solicitation ordinance, faces a court date on December 5th. He is being assisted by ADF.
Kelsey Bohn, who was among those arrested last Friday, is being represented by the ACLU, which plans to file for an injunction no later than Monday. Kelsey, a former strip club worker, came to Christ last October because of the witness of RAVEN Ministries, and was later adopted by Pastor Troy and his wife.
David Johnson, who also regularly shares his faith on Bourbon Street with several other Christians, was counseled by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) until recently. Johnson had been surrounded by mounted police officers during last month’s Southern Decadence Festival, a popular homosexual pride event, and was forced off the street under threat of arrest.
Following the incident, the ACLJ sent a 7-page demand letter to the City of New Orleans, urging the city to cease and desist its threats against those who wish to engage in free speech activities after sunset. Earlier this week, the organization informed Johnson that it could not proceed with further legal action due to a lack of resources, including the inability to locate an affiliate attorney in the area. However, Johnson is communicating with other legal counsel and is currently considering his options.
Pastor Troy Bohn said that the outpouring of support from Christians across the country has been immense.
“I’m getting messages and calls from people all over,” he told Christian News Network.
Bohn shared one particularly moving phone call that he received from a pastor in Texas, who stated that Bohn’s witness in New Orleans is inspiring.
“It’s a rally call for us,” he recalled the pastor stating. “It was a wake up call for me to talk to my church and say, ‘We need to be busy about our Father’s business.’”
Pastor Paul Gos was unavailable for comment at press time as he is currently hospitalized.
Penalties for violating New Orleans’ Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance include a $500 fine and up to six months incarceration.