COLUMBUS, Miss. — A pastor in Mississippi who was arrested and jailed four years ago while participating in a pro-life outreach on the public thoroughfare has prevailed in his lawsuit against city officials almost two years after being exonerated of criminal charges for his activities.
As previously reported, 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.
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 declared guilty, an appeals court overturned the conviction in June 2013.
With the help of the Christian legal group Liberty Counsel, Joiner sued Mississippi officials in May 2014 for his arrest, and on Monday, Joiner was awarded over $10,000 in damages in court for the incident. The City of Columbus must also pay all attorneys fees surrounding the litigation, and must amend the two ordinances used against the pastor so as to prevent further misuse.
“The notion that one man can constitute a parade and that small groups of individuals need to seek permission and a permit from the government before they can open their mouths on a public sidewalk is repugnant to the Constitution and undermines the foundation of this nation,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“This was a great victory for Pastor Joiner and for free speech in Mississippi,” added Litigation Counsel Daniel Schmid. “Pastor Joiner’s boldness in his stand for life is encouraging, and it is a privilege to be able to stand alongside pastors and fellow believers in defense of their right to stand for the most vulnerable among us.”