First Amendment

Pig's head-carrying Christians ejected from Muslim festival may collect damages, 6th Circuit says

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An en banc federal appeals court has ruled that Christian evangelists who were “preaching hate and denigration to a crowd of Muslims” may collect damages because police told them to leave.

Police in Dearborn, Michigan, ejected the Christians, part of a group called Bible Believers, in a scenario known as the “heckler’s veto,” according to the opinion (PDF) by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In such situations, a speaker is silenced to appease an angry crowd and avoid a potentially violent altercation.

The Constitution, however, does not allow “an angry mob of riotous adolescents to dictate what religious beliefs and opinions could and could not be expressed,” the court said. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has a story, while How Appealing links to the case and news coverage here and here, including this story by the Detroit News.

During the 2012 Arab International Festival, the Christians wore T-shirts calling Islam “a religion of blood and murder” and calling on adherents to “turn or burn.” One Christian carried a severed pig’s head on a spike in a belief it would keep the Muslims at bay, according to the group’s president. One speaker told the crowd of about 30 teens, “You believe in a prophet who is a pervert,” and, “God will reject you.” Some members of the crowd responded by throwing plastic bottles, eggs and milk crates at the Bible Believers.

Police appeared at times and the agitated crowd became subdued. Police issued just one citation to a man for throwing an object at the Christians. “Virtually absent from the video in the record is any indication that the police attempted to quell the violence being directed toward the Bible Believers by the lawless crowd of adolescents,” the appeals court said.

Police conferred with the Wayne County corporation counsel and told the Bible Believers they would be cited for disorderly conduct if they did not leave. More than a dozen officers escorted the group members from the festival.

The court said Wayne County “effectuated a constitutionally impermissible heckler’s veto,” violating the Christians’ rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and equal protection.

Fourth paragraph updated at 1:45 p.m.

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