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Meet Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is a lifelong resident of Tennessee. He often expresses his faith by reading his Bible in public. As a bus driver, Mr. Johnson cannot afford to travel on an overseas mission trip. Instead, he views his home state of Tennessee as his mission field and has a heart for sharing God’s word with people where he lives. Mr. Johnson has read the Bible out loud without incident at many popular Tennessee events, including town festivals and University of Tennessee football games.

Johnson Prohibited from Reading the Bible Out Loud on a Public Sidewalk

In August 2017, Mr. Johnson traveled to the nearby town of Sweetwater, Tennessee, hoping to read his Bible on a public sidewalk during a festival celebrating the 2017 total solar eclipse. Upon arrival, Mr. Johnson was met with resistance from local authorities. Police officers informed Mr. Johnson that reading the Bible on a public sidewalk qualified as a “demonstration” as defined by a twenty-five-year-old Sweetwater city ordinance and that he needed a permit from the city. However, a local city official promptly denied Mr. Johnson’s permit request, and Mr. Johnson was forced to leave Sweetwater without being able to publically read the Bible.

“I was shocked that a city had a law banning anyone from reading the Bible on a public sidewalk without their permission,” said Johnson. “All I want to do is tell people about the love of Jesus by reading my Bible, but I was worried I might be arrested if I tried.”

First Liberty Legal Action

First Liberty and the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) sent a letter to the City of Sweetwater on November 14, 2017, asking the city to allow Mr. Johnson to publically read the Bible at future events and to apply its laws in a constitutional manner.

“Every American has the right to share earnestly-held views in public,” said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. “No one should need government permission to preach.”

“Courts have repeatedly held that the government cannot close off public places to free speech during events that are free and open to the public,” said Kellum.

“Mr. Johnson does not need permission from the government to express his faith in public,” said Chelsey Youman, Counsel for First Liberty. “The First Amendment is permission enough for any citizen in any city in America to peacefully read the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk. First Liberty is fighting to change the law in Sweetwater so that Mr. Johnson and people of all faiths are able to exercise their constitutional right of free speech.”

Press Release
For Immediate Release: November 14, 2017

Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org

Direct: 972-941-4453

 

Grandfather Prohibited from Reading the Bible Out Loud on a Public Sidewalk

First Liberty attorneys say city law enforced against client is unconstitutional


SWEETWATER, Tenn.—Today, First Liberty and the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) sent a demand letter to the City of Sweetwater, Tennessee on behalf of their client, Paul Johnson. The letter asks the city to stop using a twenty-five-year-old city ordinance to prohibit Johnson from reading the Bible on a public sidewalk without a permit.

“Every American has the right to share earnestly-held views in public,” said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. “No one should need government permission to preach.”

“Mr. Johnson does not need permission from the government to express his faith in public,” said Chelsey Youman, Counsel for First Liberty. “The First Amendment is permission enough for any citizen in any city in America to peacefully read the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk. The Sweetwater ordinance is overbroad, unconstitutional, and must be immediately changed or eliminated.”

In August, police officers in Sweetwater told Mr. Johnson that reading the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk fell within the definition of a “demonstration” pursuant to an outdated city ordinance. As such, Mr. Johnson would need a permit from the city to read the Bible on a public sidewalk. But, when Mr. Johnson applied for a permit, a city official arbitrarily denied his request.

“I was shocked that a city had a law banning anyone from reading the Bible on a public sidewalk without the city’s permission,” said Johnson. “All I want to do is tell people about the love of Jesus by reading my Bible, but I was worried I might be arrested if I tried.”

To learn more, visit FirstLiberty.org/Johnson.

 

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans. 

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

To download this press release, please click here.