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The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a traveling Christian’s free-speech challenge to a University of Alabama requirement that he obtain a permit before handing out religious pamphlets and preaching from a sidewalk adjacent to its campus.
“The justices turned away an appeal by preacher Rodney Keister of a lower court’s ruling rejecting his claim that the university’s permit requirement violated free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Keister, founder of a Pennsylvania-based group called Evangelism Mission, regularly visits U.S. university campuses in hopes of spreading his Christian message to students, according to court filings,” Reuters reported.
“In 2016, Keister, along with a companion, preached using an amplifier and distributed Christian literature from a sidewalk adjacent to the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, trying to engage passersby. School officials told Keister he needed a permit for a public-speaking event, prompting him and his companion to leave. The university’s policy at issue governed when, where, and how a person unaffiliated with the school may engage in public speaking on campus including on sidewalks, other than “casual recreational or social activities.” It required a permit application 10 business days in advance – which has since been reduced to five business days – and sponsorship by a student organization or university academic department,” the outlet added.
“Keister in 2017 filed a civil rights suit against University of Alabama officials, arguing that the sidewalk’s status under the First Amendment is that of a “traditional public forum,” affording speakers the most robust protections available under the Constitution. Following losses in lower courts, Keister’s appeal in 2018 was turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting him to file an amended civil rights suit against school officials the next year. A federal judge in 2020 ruled in favor of the school officials, finding that the sidewalk was a limited public forum – a status giving public universities and other government entities more leeway to regulate particular classes of speakers or kinds of speech. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed last year,” the outlet continued.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal brought by a Florida city that was sued by a group of people who argued it had violated the Constitution when it held a prayer vigil in 2014 in response to a local shooting.
“The court turned away a dispute over a vigil held by uniformed police officers in Florida that included Christian prayers after a local shooting spree, with conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas both writing opinions suggesting they believe the court should take up a similar case in the future,” NBC News reported. “The court rejected an appeal brought by the city of Ocala seeking to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that the event violated the Establishment Clause, a provision of the Constitution’s First Amendment that prohibits government endorsement of religion. The case now returns to lower courts, where it could be dismissed on alternative grounds.”
“Ocala, represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group, asked the court to say that plaintiffs in such cases do not have legal standing simply because they object to the message being conveyed. They call it ‘offended observer standing’ and allege that the plaintiffs deliberately attended the event with the intention of suffering a legal injury. If the Supreme Court embraces Ocala’s arguments, it would make it more difficult to mount Establishment Clause challenges. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority that strongly backs religious rights and has in recent cases reduced the separation of church and state,” the outlet added.
NBC News added:
The lawsuit was filed by married couple Lucinda and Daniel Hale, Frances Jean Porgal, and Art Rojas. Daniel Hale and Porgal have since died. The plaintiffs, who are atheists, are represented by the American Humanist Association, a group that advocates for the strict exclusion of religion from the public sphere.
The legal fight centers around the city’s response to a 2014 shooting spree in which several children were injured. The police chief, as well as other members of the police department, planned a vigil in the town square and used the department’s Facebook page to invite members of the public to attend. The plaintiffs allege that the event included Christian prayers delivered by police department chaplains.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Philip Lammens of the Middle District of Florida ruled for the plaintiffs in 2015, noting that the case was not about the right of the individual officials to pray in public or about the purpose of the vigil, which was to encourage a reduction in crime. Instead, it is about whether the city and its officials “could organize and promote the vigil … where the focus of the event was prayer, which, as the law has repeatedly recognized, is fundamentally religious.”