NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans City Council voted last week to repeal a controversial ban against street preaching and evangelism on Bourbon Street.
New Orleans, which is notorious for its sexually explicit displays during its annual Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence celebrations, enacted the “Aggressive Solicitation” ordinance in 2011, which banned all evangelistic activity and free speech from sunset to sunrise on Bourbon Street.
This past week, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-0 to amend the ordinance which had been suspended by U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon in September. The council voted to remove language from the ordinance, including a portion which banned any person or group from gathering on Bourbon Street “for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise.”
Additionally, the new ordinance no longer contains the term “Bourbon Street,” and no longer includes a ban on “conduct which reasonably tends to arouse alarm or anger in others.”
The city council revised the ordinance at the request of U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is currently weighing the legality of the ban after multiple street preachers were either arrested or threatened with arrest at the Southern Decadence festival in 2012.
Kelsey McCauley-Bohn, who is being represented by the ACLU, was one of the six Christians arrested while ministering on Bourbon Street at the festival in 2012. While not handcuffed and charged, McCauley-Bohn, along with the others, followed officers to the 8th Precinct station as per police directives, where the group was informed, “You are under arrest.”
McCauley-Bohn came to Christ in October of last year because of the outreach of RAVEN Ministries. She was adopted by the group’s pastor, Troy Bohn, and his wife Melanie. McCauley-Bohn had previously been working at a strip club on Bourbon Street.
While the Aggressive Solicitation ordinance used against McCauley-Bohn and the five others was crafted primarily to restrict panhandling and other forms of begging, it also included language that prohibits any type of free speech on Bourbon Street after sunset.
“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 read.
“Because only messages of a social, political or religious perspective are restricted, the section imposes a particularly egregious [First Amendment] restriction,” the complaint filed by the ACLU stated. “[Members of RAVEN Ministries] preach a message of love and salvation. They typically display a large cross, and wear t-shirts saying things like ‘I Love Jesus’ and ‘Ask Me How Jesus Changed My Life.’ They ask people if they are familiar with the Gospel, and invite conversation; however they do not harass, follow, or make physical contact with passersby.”
District Judge Eldon Fallon, who was appointed to the bench by Bill Clinton in 1995, had ruled that the ordinance was likely causing “irreparable injury” to the constitutional rights of citizens.
“The Court finds that continued enforcement of New Orleans [Aggressive Solicitation] ordinance will result in an infringement of Plaintiff’s rights of free speech, and that the Plaintiff has demonstrated a likelihood of success that this infringement is impermissible under the United States Constitution,” Fallon wrote. “It is ordered adjudged and decreed that Plaintiff’s motion for temporary restraining order is hereby granted, and Defendants the City of New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and NOPD Superintendent Renal Serpas, and their respective agents or employees, are hereby enjoined from enforcing or attempting to enforce [the] New Orleans Parish Ordinance.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) also filed a lawsuit on behalf of Paul Gros, pastor of Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church in the French Quarter, who was threatened with arrest in May of last year while evangelizing on Bourbon Street with his wife, another pastor and a friend.
Another legal group, The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) had been assisting David Johnson, who had been surrounded by mounted police officers during the 2012 Southern Decadence Festival, and was forced off the street under the threat of arrest. Following the incident, the ACLJ sent a 7-page demand letter on September 6th 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. However, Johnson was informed by the ACLJ that it could not proceed with further legal action, in part because of a “lack of resources.”
The case of Paul Gros has been consolidated with the other suits filed and are still pending before the court.