Dispatches from the Creation Wars

For the second year in a row civil libertarians have accused the Dearborn Police Department of violating the First Amendment by arresting Christian missionaries talking and handing out literature to predominately Muslim attendees of the Dearborn International Arab Festival.

Prior to the event, one Christian ministry filed a federal lawsuit challenging rules that forbid the handing out of literature outside of a designated area near the entrance of the festival after they had encountered problems with the police in 2009. The district court rejected a request for a preliminary injunction against those rules, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and granted a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the enforcement of those rules.

A second ministry, Acts 17 Apologetics, attended the event to hand out literature and personally witness to festival goers with a goal of converting Muslims to Christianity. But before long the Dearborn Police Department arrested four members of the group — two that were speaking to people and handing out fliers and two that were videotaping them doing so.

They were charged with breach of the peace and disobeying the order of a police officer. The police report claimed that one of the missionaries, a former Muslim convert named Nabeel Qureshi, was “screaming into the crowd” and said that they had to be arrested “to gain control of the situation and avoid a possible riotous crowd.” It continues:

Negeen Mayel, Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood and Paul Rezkalla’s actions caused a crowd to gather and become agitated. The weather conditions, hot and humid temperatures, fueled an already agitated crowd. This was evident by the crowds’ yelling profanities and repeated calls to security and police on the behavior of Mayel, Qureshi, Wood and Rezkalla. When uniformed officers were present Qureshi was yelling into the crowd, further inciting the crowd.

Police seized the video of the events that were made by members of the group and held it for several weeks, finally releasing it last week. The ministry released a Youtube clip with the footage of Qureshi’s arrest and what preceded it.

That video does not show Qureshi screaming into a crowd or inciting people, it shows him calmly answering questions from a group of young people at the festival and having a civil discussion with them when the police pushed through the group, handcuffed him and led him away.

Two days later, the four missionaries returned to the festival but stayed outside the grounds on a public sidewalk to hand out literature. Within minutes the Dearborn police arrive. They did not arrest the missionaries this time, but they told them that they had to move at least five blocks away from the festival site in order to hand out literature. One officer also forced one of the group to stop videotaping what was going on, putting his hand over the lens.

The ministry also released a Youtube video of those events, again showing no confrontations, no yelling or screaming, just two people peacefully handing out pamphlets to those walking by who wanted to take them.

The four missionaries were arraigned in state court on July 12. They are being represented by the Thomas More Law Center, the Christian legal group founded by pizza magnate Tom Monaghan. Richard Thompson, president of the organization, said in a press release:

“These Christian missionaries were exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, but apparently the Constitution carries little weight in Dearborn, where the Muslim population seems to dominate the political apparatus. It’s apparent that these arrests were a retaliatory action over the embarrassing video of the strong arm tactics used last year by Festival Security Guards. This time, the first thing police officers did before making the arrests was to confiscate the video cameras in order to prevent a recording of what was actually happening.”

Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly Jr. released a statement on the city’s website on July 9, accusing the missionaries of deliberately manufacturing their arrest for publicity. He reiterated the charge in the police report that the defendants were “aggressively engaging passers-by in confrontational debate.”

But the Thomas More Law Center is not alone in arguing that engaging in debate in a public place is not only not illegal, it is explicitly protected by the Constitution. The ACLU, a frequent adversary of the TMLC, agrees that the arrests appear to be a violation of the First Amendment.

Michael Steinberg, the legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, told the Messenger via email, “Based solely on the videotape, it appears that the man encouraging others to convert to Christianity was engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment. The videotape suggests that the man who was arrested was not harassing the people with whom he was speaking, nor was he inciting a riot; rather, he was engaged in the type of free exchange of ideas about religion that is valued in a free society. The man’s message may not have been popular at this particular festival, but the Constitution protects unpopular speech as well as popular speech.”

Steinberg also says that what happened on Sunday, June 20 — when the same missionaries were shooed off a public sidewalk and told they had to be at least five blocks away to hand out literature — looks like an abuse of authority as well.

“If it was being distributed on public streets outside the area reserved for the festival,” he said, “then it was protected First Amendment activity because public streets are quintessential public forums where protection of freedom of speech is strongest.”

He also noted that “videotaping police officers in public – especially when documenting perceived police misconduct – is activity protected by the Constitution.”

Dan Ray, a professor of constitutional law at Cooley Law School in Ann Arbor, agrees. “If any local authority told the religious group that it could only distribute its literature five blocks away,” he said, “that’s a clear First Amendment violation.” As a legal question, he said, this was “not even a close call.”