‘Street preachers’ file lawsuit for access to Duluth holiday lighting displayTwo Northland men have filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the right to preach their religion inside the Bentleyville Tour of Lights.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Two Northland men have filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the right to preach their religion inside the Bentleyville Tour of Lights.
Steve Jankowski of Duluth and Peter Scott of Hibbing said they were ordered out of the holiday lighting display in Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park in 2010 because they refused to stop preaching their Christian beliefs — action they say is protected under their First Amendment rights.
The suit, filed Friday in Minneapolis, names the city and Duluth police officer Jim Nilsson, who the men say told them to leave last year’s event after preaching there.
The preachers have asked for a speedy court order barring Duluth officers from restraining their rights during the Tour of Lights festival while it runs through Christmas.
While officials for Bentleyville and the city have declined comment on the suit, records filed in the case show a city attorney telling Jankowski that Bentleyville has a right to exclude people and ask them to leave. Refusing to leave, the attorney wrote, could result in arrest.
A date for a hearing had not been set Tuesday. The News Tribune was unable to reach Jankowski or Scott for comment Tuesday.
The suit claims the men have a religious obligation to preach in public, including carrying signs and wearing messages on their clothes. According to the suit, both men are known for preaching along Duluth’s sidewalks and streets and at events.
The men have support from two national Christian groups, the Thomas Moore Society and the Alliance Defense Fund.
“Our clients simply want to be able to walk through this event and exercise their right to expression,” said Jonathan Scruggs, attorney for the Alliance. “The key factor here is that the city owns the park and operates the park and does not abdicate authority of it being a public place simply because they have given a permit to a private entity.”
According to the suit, Scott and another friend, Michael Winandy, were told by Nilsson to stop preaching or leave Bentleyville on the night of Nov. 27, 2010. The officer left the scene, but when the two men started preaching again, the suit said, they were approached by two members of the Bentleyville volunteer staff who allegedly told them, “Do you realize that freedom of religion is also freedom from religion, and you’re impinging on my rights?”
The suit notes that Scott’s sweatshirt was emblazoned with “Fear God. Hate Sin. Trust Jesus” on the front and “The Blood of Jesus washes Away Sins” on the back.
According to the suit, when Scott and his friend began to preach about how Jesus died for them, one of the staff said, “If you don’t back down, we will help you meet (Jesus) quicker.”
Scott then called police, but the incident ended without any additional action after the display had closed for the night, according to the filing.
Ken Butler, attorney for the private, nonprofit organization that oversees Bentleyville, said Tuesday he had just received the suit and wasn’t clear yet on its details. But Butler said the contract with the city is clear that Bentleyville is a lessee of the city property and essentially controls access to the grounds.
The same right is extended to concert promoters, for example, who are allowed to erect fences around Bayfront Festival Park and keep people out who do not pay or abide by the promoter’s rules.
In a Nov. 29, 2010, e-mail from Deputy City Attorney Alison Lutterman to Jankowski, the city laid out its opinion on the situation. Lutterman said Bentleyville “has a contract with the city that allows it exclusive rights to the use of the Bayfront area for its presentation of a holiday lighting display known as Bentleyville. These exclusive rights include the right to exclude persons. Bentleyville is not an area intended for the exercise of 1st Amendment activity.”
In the suit, Jankowski said he perceived the e-mail to be a “First Amendment ban” of his rights and that he did not go to Bentleyville to preach because of the e-mail.
Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said the city had not been served the lawsuit Tuesday and that he had not seen it. Johnson acknowledged that the city has had interactions with the preachers over the past year.
In September, attorneys for the Thomas Moore Society sent city officials a letter saying Jankowski, Scott and others have, in addition to the Bentleyville incident, repeatedly been denied their right to “street preach” in Duluth and that several police officers have overstepped their bounds by ordering the men to stop preaching.