Thibodaux, Louisiana — A Louisiana woman is being permitted to continue distributing Bibles at her local farmer’s market after the park service that presides over the area upheld her right to do so.
Shirley Elliott has been selling jams and jellies at the Thibodaux Farmer’s Market near Jean Lafitte National Historic Park for approximately two years. Last year, she began placing Bibles on her table with a sign notating that they were free for the taking.
However, in December, a park ranger approached Elliott and ordered her to remove the Bibles from her tables because they were “on federal property.” She was informed that if she wanted to distribute Bibles on park property, she would have to do so in a certain designated area.
Elliot then contacted the Christian legal organization Liberty Counsel to seek assistance. Attorneys with the Orland0, Florida-based group noted that park regulations state that “non-profit organizations with missions related to . . . education, youth, and/or nutrition are invited to participate in the market.” Therefore, they believed that to deny the distribution of Bibles while allowing other types of literature to be freely given away was discriminatory.
Attorney Richard Mast, Jr. sent a letter to Carol Clark to request that the park service ensure that Elliot and others would not continue to be “subjected to discrimination based on the religious nature of [their] material.”
“Even in the absence of the market-vendor agreement, it would be irrational and discriminatory for a vendor to be permitted to sell produce, give away free samples, and make available secular printed material relevant to education and youth from her table at the market, while requiring that same vendor to go through the time, expense and hassle of establishing a secondary location approximately 100 yards away simply to distribute Bibles in an official ‘literature distribution/free speech zone,'” the letter outlined.
This week, acting superintendent Lance Hatten responded to Mast’s correspondence, stating that there was a “misunderstanding” about the matter.
“We regret the misunderstanding regarding the distribution of religious materials,” Hatten wrote in the short, three-paragraph letter. “The NPS (National Park Service) respects the right of vendors to make free religious materials available. Please assure Ms. Elliott that she is welcome to offer free Bibles at her produce and homemade jellies table.”
“We are thankful that the Park Service reversed its decision and protected Ms. Elliott’s First Amendment right to distribute literature,” stated Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel in a news release outlining the victory in the matter. “Thankfully, Ms. Elliott did not allow herself to be bullied by those who want to remove Christianity from the public square. It is the right of every American to advocate a religious viewpoint. Offering books or literature to willing recipients is protected by the First Amendment. Mere disagreement with the content of the speech is not sufficient to deny those constitutional rights.”
Free speech zones and demonstration zones are becoming more commonplace in America, including at the various national parks across America. In 2007, Repent America director Michael Marcavage was arrested by park rangers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after he declined to move to a free speech zone away from the people with which he was speaking. He was charged with violating the Code of Federal Regulations for preaching on a public sidewalk, fined and sentenced to a year of probation.
After a two-year legal battle, in 2010, a unanimous panel with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the charges against Marcavage, stating that “the government impermissibly infringed Marcavage’s First Amendment right to free speech” as had been targeted because of the content of his message. As a result, the park service changed its regulations, granting Marcavage and others the freedom to preach the word of God on park property.