But the city defends the actions of its officers and offers no assurances
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League of North Carolina
July 26, 2008
HICKORY – Jesse and Matthew Boyd, arrested for sharing their faith at an outdoor concert on June 27, had their second-degree trespassing charges dismissed by the District Attorney July 16. But comments from city officials in this western North Carolina town give them little confidence that their religious freedom will be protected.
Chief of Police Tom Adkins told the media. “I believe our officers handled the situation appropriately to maintain the peace ….”
The president of Full Proof Gospel Ministries, 32-year-old Jesse Boyd begs to differ.
“So Chief Adkins, I guess you are telling us that it is appropriate to handcuff Christians, escort them down to a jail cell, and take their mug shots simply because they were peaceably handing out Gospel tracts in a traditionally public forum?” Boyd asks in his Monday blog update.
While one city council member after the next defended the officers’ actions in the Hickory News and Record, they also assured media outlets that they supported the brothers’ rights to distribute religious material.
” … It is abundantly clear that these (officials) have no idea about the protections afforded to us by the Founding Fathers in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Jesse Boyd wrote to supporters early this week as he pointed out the incongruity in city officials’ statements. “If you support our right to hand out Gospel tracts, how could the actions of the police on June 27 have been appropriate? Which is it?”
While the police talked about “maintaining the peace,” Councilwoman Jill Patton cited “citizen safety” as a concern regarding the Boyds’ arrests, niether of which are consistent with witness accounts of the incident or the charges levied.
“Whose safety was threatened?… How was the peace disturbed?” Boyd would like to know. “If we were causing a public disturbance of any kind, why didn’t your officers arrest us for disturbing the peace, inciting a riot or harassment?”
The Boyds, who are being represented by the Christian Law Association of Seminole, Fla., have received no answers to their questions nor any real assurance that they won’t be arrested again for sharing their faith, though police have allowed witnessing at Hickory Alive events on at least two other Friday nights since the arrests at the Jaycee-sponsored concert.
Unfortunately, attorneys at CLA said the situation in Hickory is not unique. Barbara Weller, who has worked on First Amendment cases for a dozen years, said that she spends much of her time educating city officials about Americans’ rights to speak about their religion on public streets.
“I think a lot of city attorneys and others in government are not doing something wrong on purpose. They just don’t really know that free speech rights are protected,” Weller said. “There is this idea somehow that Christianity isn’t allowed to be seen or heard in public.”
The CLA receives more than 100,000 phone calls a year from people facing legal difficulties for doing what the Bible commands. According to the group’s Web site, the cases range from Christians like the Boyds being arrested for witnessing to others in public to public school students being told they do not have the right to read their Bibles at school or believers being fired for sharing their faith at work.
Though she declined to talk specifically about the Boyds’ case, Weller cited some of the same violations that Jesse Boyd mentioned as favorite, but invalid, reasons for arrests.
“In cases like this, folks are usually charged with one of three charges: disorderly conduct, solicitation or trespassing,” Weller said, explaining why none of the three are appropriate.
“Solicitation involves the selling of items and soul winners are not selling, but giving away free tracts,” she said. “Trespassing is generally when a person is on private property so you can’t be trespassing if you’re on public streets or parks.”
Disorderly conduct is described as somewhat of a “catch-all” type of charge by Weller, who said when it is used against those peaceably sharing their faith, it can become what is known as a “heckler’s veto,” defined by attorney Ronald B. Standler as “suppression of speech by the government, because of (the possibility of) a violent reaction by hecklers.” Under the First Amendment, this is unconstitutional, Standler says.
“If a street preacher is preaching and giving out tracts and other citizens get upset and began to loudly heckle the speaker and disturb the peace, the police often will incorrectly arrest the preacher to make the heckling stop rather than deal with the heckler,” Weller said.
The Boyds say on the night of June 27 they were not screaming or yelling, but simply talking to people one-on-one and they have videotape of their arrests to support their claim.
“There was no peace being disturbed that night. Many people took tracts appreciatively and there were several good conversations before officers approached and violated Constitutional Law,” Boyd wrote in his blog.
If city officials continue to insist that officers were simply trying to keep the peace, Jesse Boyd said he fears for the future of free speech.
“What will the Hickory Police Department deem ‘disturbing the peace’ next: wearing Scripture verses on a T-shirt, having church in one’s home, homeschooling our children, having Christian bumper stickers on our vehicles, having a conversation about the things of the Lord on a public sidewalk, reading a Bible on a park bench?” Boyd wrote to those on his e-mail list. “Bible-believing Christians are losing freedoms quickly in America, and if we do not wake up and hold our elected officials accountable, all will soon be lost.”
To find out more about Fool Proof Gospel Ministries, see the group’s Web site at www.fpgm.org. To see Jesse Boyd’s full statement on what is happpening in Hickory, click on Travel Blogs, then on 2008 and Go to Archive.