SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — A Christian in California has filed a lawsuit against the City of San Francisco over the actions of four police officers who he says banned him from holding a “John 3:16” sign in view of cameras during a baseball game last year.
Gino Emmerich says that he has regularly held the sign at ball games in the area as part of his Christian witness—a practice that is believed to have been observed by others at sporting events nationwide since the 1980’s. The 1993 Steve Taylor song “Bannerman” centered on the tradition.
“The ball gets booted/It hits the crossbeam/Up goes the banner/John 3:16,” the song declares. “He ain’t gonna change the world/But he knows who can.”
Emmerich says that during a Giants v. Dodgers game last July, as he carried the sign near the broadcast booth area in Willie Mays Plaza, he was approached by an ESPN producer and four police officers. According to the complaint filed in federal court, the producer told Emmerich that if he held up the sign to the cameras he would be arrested.
Minutes later, Emmerich held up the sign as he stood behind the commentators sitting at the broadcast booth. As he did so, an unidentified police officer grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him out of view of the camera.
“Plaintiff is informed and believes and thereon alleges that the officer did this so as to stop plaintiff from communicating the biblical message on his sign,” the complaint reads.
Others had been holding signs with various secular messages, and therefore, Emmerich felt that he was being singled out because of the content of his message.
He says that after he was pulled aside, he was surrounded by several officers who repeated the ESPN producer’s warning that if he held up the sign he would be arrested.
“If I go over there and hold up this sign again, you are going to take me to jail?” Emmerich asked, according to the legal complaint.
“If you go over there and hold that sign again, we will arrest you and the sergeant will come over here and decide where we are going to take you,” an officer responded.
Emmerich then left the area out of concern over the threat of arrest and contacted the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute for legal counsel. In December, a letter was sent to the city about the incident, and this past April, the city replied by denying the claim.
Therefore, the Rutherford Institute has filed a formal legal challenge in federal court, seeking a permanent injunction against the officers’ actions, as well as a declaration that Emmerich’s activities are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Emmerich is also seeking $50,000 in damages for each cause of action and the payment of attorney’s fees.
“Much of what used to be great about America—especially as it pertains to our love of freedom and our commitment to First Amendment activities—has been overshadowed by a greater desire for security and an inclination towards political correctness,” Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead and author of “Battlefield America: The War on the American People” said in a statement.
“That this incident, with its police intimidation tactics, overt discrimination and censorship, took place in a public plaza dedicated to Willie Mays, a legendary baseball player who lived through an era of police tactics, discrimination and censorship, is a powerful indictment of all that is wrong with America today,” he said.