Reading the Bible in Public Has Never Been So Controversial

Advocates for Faith & Freedom recently filed a lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol when three men from Hemet, California, were arrested for reading the Bible out loud in front of the DMV.  The facts are indisputable because the entire arrest was recorded.  The video of the arrest can be found here.  All that is missing from this video is approximately 25 minutes of Bible reading from various Bible passages.  There was no disturbance and no preaching - just pure Bible reading.  However, this case has created quite a controversy thanks, in part, to media coverage from local newspapers to Glenn Beck on the Fox News Channel to the video being played over 90,000 times on YouTube.The Controversy Begins

Many non-Christians are offended by the teachings of the Bible, so hearing the Bible read in public is especially disturbing to them.  II Corinthians 2:14 speaks of this reality where it says that the Gospel is like the aroma of death to the unbeliever, but life to the believer.  Additionally, many Christians are disturbed by the fact that we filed this case because they strongly disagree with the method of evangelism used by these men – reading the Bible aloud to persons who were waiting in line for the DMV to open.

On the other hand, most people who support our lawsuit are equally disturbed by the officer’s complete disregard of the First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourth Amendment right to be free from arrest unless the arresting officer has reasonable belief that a crime was committed.

A False Arrest

Why were the men arrested?

It was not for trespassing or loitering since they were allowed to be there.  Rather, the CHP officer claimed that it was illegal to “preach” to a “captive audience.”  Of course, there is no such law in the California Penal Code.  Instead, the men were later cited for allegedly violating Penal Code Section 602.1(b), which prohibits individuals from intentionally obstructing or intimidating persons who are attempting to carry on business with a public agency.  However, not only does the video evidence clearly dispute the claim of obstruction or intimidation as the men were more than 50 feet from the DMV entrance, Penal Code Section 602.1(b) expressly states that it does not apply to any “person on the premises who is engaging in activities protected by the California Constitution or the United States Constitution.” Reading the Bible out loud on public property is an activity that is typically protected by both the United States and California Constitutions.

Even though it appears clear to most people that this was an unlawful arrest with no valid probable cause, many Christians and non-Christians alike are offended by what they saw on the video – a man reading the Bible in a loud voice, approximately 20 to 30 feet from individuals waiting in line for the DMV to open for business.  Some people don’t believe that reading from the Bible out loud in public deserves protection under the First Amendment because they think it might be offensive to the ears of unsuspecting recipients.

Is Street Evangelism Wrong?

We have heard from some Christians who say they are embarrassed by persons who engage in “street evangelism,” especially when they observe annoying or offensive witnessing methods.  We have heard from a few Christians who are offended by the evangelistic approach used by these three men in particular and, therefore, do not support the legal action we have taken to challenge these unlawful arrests.

We understand that not everyone agrees with vigorous street evangelism, but not everyone agrees with passive non-confrontational evangelism either.  Some people may have been offended by Billy Graham’s evangelistic approach.  Does that mean that Billy Graham should not have had the right to free speech because some persons disagreed with his message or approach?  Should Martin Luther King’s speeches have been censored because some of the “white establishment” was offended by his remarks – remarks that some would say were offensive and radical?

The First Amendment was not intended to protect speech that everyone agrees with.  In fact, agreeable speech needs no protection.  Rather, freedom of speech applies to offensive speech, annoying speech, and even evangelistic speech.  This is the point of this case.  You don’t have to agree with the method of evangelism to support the fact that our Constitution, and the right of free speech found in the First Amendment, does not allow the police or other governmental officials to decide whether speech is acceptable or constitutionally protected.  If offensive speech is not protected, it may be determined in the future that your church’s door hangers advertising Easter service or the gospel tracks you hand out in front of the homeless shelter are offensive and, therefore, illegal!

In the future, it may be your own method of evangelism that is banned from public dissemination in alleged violation of the First Amendment.  We concluded that even though our clients’ approach to evangelism is offensive to some, their speech must still be constitutionally protected.  Some of the cases we regularly cite to in legal briefs to defend religious liberty are based on highly offensive facts.  For example, one case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court said that the words “F… the Draft”, written on a t-shirt that was worn in a courthouse, is protected speech.

Recently, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the right of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church to stage protests in front of military funerals in order to protest the military’s acceptance of homosexual behavior.  Some of the signs that were held read, “Fag Troops”, “You're Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.”

Speech Is Powerful                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “in public debate [we] must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”  Roberts addressed the captive audience argument by writing, “the Constitution does not permit the government to decide which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer.  Rather, ... the burden normally falls upon the viewer to avoid further bombardment of [his] sensibilities simply by averting [his] eyes.”  Roberts summarized his rationale as follows: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and-as it did here-inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course-to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

We Must Support Free Speech

Intellectual honesty is required of Christians, as it is of all American citizens.  True free speech is by nature controversial, and can be difficult to defend when any individual does not agree with the speech for any reason.  If we decide that only our own personal view of Christ-like speech or our method of evangelism deserves constitutional protection, then, eventually your own religious expression may be publicly banned.  The Truth of the Gospel does not return void and American culture desperately and increasingly needs that Truth to be shared.  It is more important than ever to defend the free speech rights of every individual who seeks to share that Truth, regardless of the controversy surrounding the method, in order to ensure that everyone’s right of free speech is protected, for all methods and in all forums, for the sake of future generations and the culture of today.