COLUMBUS, Miss. – A pastor in Mississippi has filed a lawsuit against city officials after he was arrested, jailed and ultimately exonerated over charges surrounding holding a pro-life sign on the public sidewalk.
According to reports, Pastor Stephen Joiner of Columbus Church of the Nazarene was traveling through the city in March 2011 when he saw members of the group Pro-Life Mississippi holding signs along a busy intersection. He parked his vehicle at a nearby pharmacy and walked over to the group to thank them for being a voice for the unborn.
As Joiner began to converse with members, he learned that they were promoting a proposed personhood amendment in the state, which seeks to declare that life begins at conception. Because he supported the cause, Joiner decided to join the group in holding signs at the location.
However, Joiner was soon approached by Columbus Police Captain Frederick Shelton, who ordered him to leave the area, asserting that the pastor was blocking traffic. Shelton likewise ordered the others to leave, stating that they were also interfering with traffic.
According to the lawsuit filed in court, Joiner respectfully disagreed with Shelton, contending that he believed he had a First Amendment right to stand on the public sidewalk. Shelton, in turn, cited Joiner for “failure to obey a police officer” and was arrested.
“See how this works? If we were out here protesting for gay rights, the police would be out here protecting us, not arresting us,” Joiner declared as he was being placed in handcuffs. “But they come out to arrest good Christian folks.”
“Sir, you are being arrested by a Christian and a chaplain,” Shelton replied.
“Pastor Joiner was then handcuffed so tightly that his wrist bled from the handcuffs, taken into custody, shackled in leg restraints, and transported to the Lowndes County Jail,” the lawsuit, filed by Liberty Counsel on Wednesday, outlines. “There, he was denied food water, and even use of a bathroom, although he had explained to them that he was diabetic and had not eaten anything for some time and that he needed to use the restroom.”
After four hours, Joiner was released and stood trial later that year, where Shelton told the court that the pastor had violated the city’s Parade and Handbill Ordinance. Although he was initially found guilty, an appeals court overturned the conviction in June of last year.
Joiner’s lawsuit seeks to secure his freedom to engage in free speech activities in Columbus without the fear of future arrest, and requests a permanent injunction against the ordinances used to convict him.
“The First Amendment protects the right of citizens to express themselves on the public ways free of government interference,” Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel, wrote in a statement about the civil challenge. “The city’s actions were entirely unjustified and are an affront to the fundamental rights of all Americans. Even unpopular speech is protected when peacefully expressed, as Pastor Joiner did here.”