Rock Island, Illinois — An evangelist that was threatened with arrest in Illinois for scaring the public with the message of the Gospel is continuing his legal battle against police in an effort to regain his right to preach on the public streets.
Stephen Johnson told Christian News Network that his attorneys recently added the names of two Rock Island police officers to his official complaint in an effort to hold them accountable for their actions. Johnson, who lives in Colorado, but grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, stated that problems with police began in June 2011.
“I went on a street corner in downtown Rock Island, and was blocking no traffic, [and I used] no amplification,” he recalled. “I preached for about twenty minutes and handed out some tracts, and then the police came and told me that I was disturbing the peace — that I was raising my voice, and that I was cussing [by using the word ‘Hell’.] They said that what I was doing was illegal, and that if I continued, they would arrest me.”
Johnson, surprised by the actions of the police, contacted the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) for help. Attorneys with the organization then initiated a lawsuit which sought an emergency injunction, and Johnson thought that perhaps the legal action might have helped to open the door to preach the Gospel.
However, that was not the case when he returned to Rock Island in April 2012.
“I did pretty much the same thing: I preached about twenty minutes, and I handed out a few tracts,” Johnson explained. “[W]hen I got in my car to leave, … and as I was getting ready to start the car, the police zoomed up and turned on their lights, and told me to get out of the car.”
“They pretty much said the same thing,” he continued. “They said, ‘You’re not supposed to raise your voice or scare anybody and tell people they’re going to die.’ I said, ‘Well, what if that building’s on fire and I raise my voice and tell people if they don’t leave, they’re going to die? Is that wrong?'”
Johnson said that the police still would not budge.
“They got all mad and said, ‘You can’t tell people they’re doing to die,’ and its like, ‘Well, they’re going to!'” he exclaimed with frustration in his voice.
The officers also took issue with Johnson speaking about Hell, which they considered “cussing.”
When he told the officers that he should have the freedom in America to express his beliefs, one of them replied, “The United States of America will put your [expletive] in jail.”
Johnson states that as his case has proceeded in court, the government has not been able to produce any law that he has violated, and because the court sees the matter as an isolated incident, it has not been willing to grant an injunction.
“The first time the police came up to me, they said there was a city ordinance that [says] you couldn’t raise your voice,” he said. “After we confronted them in court, the city said it was actually state law.”
However, the bigger issue in the case has been over Johnson’s use of the word “Hell.” He said that the government does not understand why it is a necessary part of his preaching.
“The last time we were in court, … [for approximately] a third of the proceedings they wanted to know why I use the word ‘Hell’ and why is it relevant to what I do,” Johnson explained. “They wanted me to actually produce Scripture that talks about Hell, and I did. … They figured that Hell was just a cuss word as they found it [as being] something that had no business being mentioned out in public.”
Johnson said that proceedings are continuing now that attorneys with ADF have included the officers in the lawsuit to personally hold them liable for their behavior. He stated that he is grieved about the entire situation.
“This is my hometown,” he lamented. “These are the people that I grew up with, and out of love for those people and out of compassion, I want for them to hear the truth.”
“It just seems like the authorities don’t want that to happen,” Johnson said.