SPOKANE, Wash. — Prosecutors in Washington State have decided to appeal to the Superior Court of Spokane after a lower court judge dismissed charges against a pastor who was arrested in June for refusing to move across the street from the South Hill Public Library in exercising his free speech against a “Drag Queen Story Hour” event. One prosecutor has since deleted an online comment in which he characterized those involved in the case as “religious loonies.”
“The prosecutors’ unrelenting pursuit and extreme characterization of Yaghtin’s speech has reached an alarming level,” writes the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI). “The prosecution claims that Yaghtin was using ‘offensive language that could incite violence’ and was trying to ‘advance his public protest and profile.'”
It also notes that prosecutor Sean O’Quinn has since deleted a recent comment from social media that read, “I had a picture of my 8th grader here, but as the result of the religious loonies associated with a case I am prosecuting, I was advised to change the pic …”
As previously reported, Afshin Yaghtin of New Covenant Baptist Church was arrested on June 15 for obstructing an officer as he contended with police that the South Hill Library is public property and that he should be able to speak adjacent to the facility instead of being required to stand across the street.
Video footage posted to social media showed police telling Yaghtin that if he does not support the event, he needs to stand on the other side of the street, away from the library — though those defending the drag queens were permitted to be on the same side.
“So, I can stand right here,” Yaghtin stated to one officer.
“No, you are going to need to go across the street,” the officer replied.
Yaghtin then spoke to another officer, and was again told to stand across the street. He asserted that the library should be considered public property as the event was solely in one room.
“This is a public library. The only event that they’ve reserved is a private room,” Yaghtin argued. “The rest of the library is U.S. property. … I have the right to free speech wherever I want to speak.”
He was soon taken into custody and charged with obstructing the police, or as reports state, “trying to enter the non-designated protest area.”
According to The Spokesman-Review, an estimated 40 police officers were stationed outside of the library. Those who supported the event — approximately 400 in all — stood adjacent to library property, and those opposed to the “Drag Queen Story Time” — about 200 concerned residents — were asked by police to stand on the other side of the street.
Reports state that authorities thought those on both sides of the issue would be attending the protest armed, and so camouflage snipers were placed in various locations. One photo posted to social media showed a man in camouflage standing atop the South Hill Library. The Charles Carroll Society also posted photos on its website of men on the roof holding binoculars. See here and here.
A law enforcement dispatch supervisor through Spokane County 911 confirmed to Christian News Network that those atop the library roof were snipers “most likely” with the Spokane Police Department SWAT team as opposed to the county SWAT team.
Last month, Judge Tracy Staab of the Spokane Municipal Court dismissed the charges against Yaghtin, opining that law enforcement told him to move because of his stated position on the matter.
“[T]he scope of the protest zones was expanded to include anyone attending the event who had an opinion about the event, regardless of whether they were protesting or creating a disturbance,” she also noted.
Prosecutors asked Staab to reconsider, but she denied the request last Tuesday. Consequently, prosecutors have decided to appeal to the Spokane County Superior Court.
“The judge emphasized that law enforcement told Pastor Afshin to move based on his expressed beliefs. They do not argue against this,” remarked PJI attorney Jorge Romos, who is defending Yaghtin. “We are grateful that the judge reaffirmed her decision and disregarded the prosecution’s escalated rhetoric. Unfortunately, our focus now must shift to the Court of Appeals.”
Yaghtin says that prosecutors sent the initial appeal notice to PJI attorneys on Dec. 23, sarcastically tacking at the end, “Merry Christmas!” He believes that his case is an example of malicious prosecution, showing clear bias against his religion.