DETROIT (AP) — Police didn't violate the First Amendment when they threatened to ticket Christian evangelists at an Arab-American street festival in suburban Detroit, a federal appeals court said Wednesday in a 2-1 decision that drew a pointed dissent from a judge who called it a "blueprint" to stifle speech.
Members of a group called Bible Believers were pelted with water bottles and rocks while carrying a pig's head and telling Muslims they were "sick" and would "burn in hell" for their beliefs.
Dearborn is the center of southeastern Michigan's Middle Eastern community, which is one of the largest in the U.S. Roughly 150,000 people in the area trace their roots to the Arab world. It includes both Muslims and Christians.
Wayne County authorities said they were concerned about unrest and threatened to ticket the evangelists unless they left the Dearborn fair in June 2012. They walked away but were subsequently ticketed for traveling in a van without a license plate.
"The video from the 2012 festival demonstrates that (evangelists') speech and conduct intended to incite the crowd to turn violent. ... Although robustly guarded by the First Amendment, religious conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society," the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. The ruling applies throughout the 6th Circuit — Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
The sheriff's office was "regulating the safety of the festival attendees," not "religious conduct," judges Bernice Donald and Samuel Mays Jr. said in affirming the dismissal of a lawsuit against county authorities.
But Judge Eric Clay wrote an 11-page dissent, saying authorities had illegally exercised a "heckler's veto" when they threatened to ticket Bible Believers. He noted that the court's decision now will serve as a precedent in other free-speech disputes.
"The First Amendment protects plaintiffs' speech, however bilious it was," he said. "The majority ... provides a blueprint for the next police force that wants to silence speech without having to go through the burdensome process of law enforcement. I expect we will see this case again."
The annual fair, held from 1995 to 2012, led to regular clashes between evangelizing Christian groups and Dearborn's large Arab and Muslim population.
Lawsuits challenging efforts to restrict access mostly have ended in favor of evangelists. Dearborn paid $300,000 and apologized after missionaries were arrested in 2010.
Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwhiteap