BRYN MAWR, Penn. – A Christian street preacher who was cited for disorderly conduct this past spring for preaching to patrons of a Pennsylvania bar district has been vindicated of the charge.
As previously reported, James MacPherson joined other local Christians on a Saturday night this past April to share the Gospel on the streets of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania out of their desire to be a light in the darkness. It was his first time ever to street preach.
“We’re called to preach the Gospel,” he told Christian News Network. “The people who go to these bars, and the people who seek whatever the college scene has to offer them, they’re looking for something that they’re not going to find where they currently are. So, if we can point them to Christ, or have some of the message given to them, then it would be totally worth the time spent doing it.”
The men originally set up down the street from Kelly’s Taproom, a popular hangout for college students, especially on the weekend. One man stated that he could hear the song “Sweet Caroline,” which was being played inside the bar, hundreds of feet away at the end of the street. He also noted that the establishment has a history of complaints over its rowdy night club atmosphere, which continues into the early hours of the morning.
However, as MacPherson and others began preaching and distributing tracts to passersby, they were the ones approached by police.
“The officer pulled up and he basically tried to figure out what we were doing, because I guess it’s not something that is common practice in Bryn Mawr,” he explained. “He said that we were okay to be out preaching.”
Notwithstanding, MacPherson outlined that the officer was unsure of the content of the local noise ordinance, and kept returning after checking on matters with his supervisor. During this time, the men had moved across the street from the bar and were reaching out to a number of people coming and going from the establishment.
“The officer said that we were fine [to preach], but that if he received any complaints that he would come back and ask us to turn it down,” he stated.
Approximately an hour and a half later, Officer Swain returned after receiving a complaint from local resident Paul McNabb, who walked down to the bar area after taking out the trash at his home. McNabb is known in the community for lodging complaints against activities that he opposes, including the loud music emanating from Kelly’s Taproom.
“I don’t think that you should be able to tell somebody that just because you don’t like their noise, or you don’t like the content of their speech, or you don’t like the fact that they’re there, that they need to stop,” he said. “We have certain rights in this country. The rights that we’re afforded by the Constitution are very important to a free republic. … As long as these rights are afforded to us, and God has directed us to go out and share the Gospel, then we must take advantage of that.”
Nonetheless, to cooperate with the police, MacPherson and the men moved across the street to be closer to the entrance of the bar. However, approximately 20 minutes later, Swain’s supervisor arrived and directed Swain to cite MacPherson for disorderly conduct for making “unreasonable noise” by preaching across from Kelly’s Taproom earlier — even though MacPherson had stopped speaking and relocated across the street.
When asked why the bar was allowed to blare music into the streets, but MacPherson was cited for preaching, the sergeant replied, “It’s a Saturday night. It’s a liquor establishment, and it’s … the normal business hours for that establishment.”
Video footage of the discussion with police further captures one of MacPherson’s friends taking issue with the logic of the sergeant.
“[Y]ou still have music that can be heard all the way across a four-lane street, somewhere down a half a block here, and you’re going to allow them to do that,” he said. “I think it’s unfair that we would be cited when this facility can blare its music and do what it’s doing.”
In May, MacPherson appeared before Magisterial District Judge Kathleen Valentine, who found him guilty of disorderly conduct. Valentine required that MacPherson prepay nearly $450 in order to obtain a hearing, which included $300 in fines and other related costs. She later outlined that she personally knew the complainant.
Therefore, MacPherson appealed the decision, and on Wednesday, a completely new trial was held in Montgomery County Court. Prosecutor Bess Alden offered MacPherson a plea deal of 20 hours community service before the proceedings began, but he refused. Therefore, the criminal case commenced.
MacPherson characterized the prosecution as “pulling out all their guns” in lining up several witnesses against him on the stand. However, he noted that Alden appeared not to be familiar with an element in the disorderly conduct statute that requires that the defendant demonstrate an intent to be disorderly by making unreasonable noise. Therefore, MacPherson believed he had this advantage during the trial.
“The courts have decided that the disorderly conduct statute is not intended to be a catchall for any loud noise, but that’s exactly what they use it for, and that’s what happened to me,” he explained. “[I]n order to proclaim the Gospel, you have to be vocal. You have to lift up your voice like a trumpet.”
Both Officer Swain and complainant Paul McNabb testified before the court. However, after defense witness testimony conflicted with Officer’s Swain’s account of the night, as well as video footage of the incident, Judge William Nicholas declared MacPherson not guilty of disorderly conduct.
“He said that the Commonwealth did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was intent or that there was recklessness on my part,” MacPherson outlined.
As the court dismissed, MacPherson was also in for a bit of a surprise.
“I spoke to Mr. McNabb afterwards,” he recalled. “He wants us to preach at Villanova University. It was kind of interesting.”
MacPherson said that God used the incident to teach him numerous lessons about the challenges in obeying the Great Commission.
“It taught me that there’s a battle that’s raging hot, and the enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy,” MacPherson explained. “Sometimes you don’t understand how much the battle is raging until you put yourself out into it.”
“The whole experience has taught me that there’s a price to be paid, and we’re to count the cost,” he concluded. “But the cost is totally worth it.”