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Tennessee City Prohibits Grandfather from Reading Bible Aloud in Public

First Liberty and the Center for Religious Expression send demand letter seeking change to unconstitutional city ordinance

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November 16, 2017

Paul Johnson, a Tennessee grandfather who enjoys sharing his faith, was peaceably reading his Bible out loud on a public sidewalk during a town festival. As he read, he was confronted by multiple police officers, threatened with arrest, and told he needed a permit to read the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk.

But on Tuesday, November 14, First Liberty Institute and the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) sent a demand letter to the City of Sweetwater, Tennessee, on behalf of Mr. Johnson.

The conflict began in August 2017 during the town’s solar eclipse festival.

Video footage shows that Johnson was in a public area and not obstructing the festival. Yet Sweetwater police interpreted Johnson’s religious expression as a “demonstration” for which a permit was required. That’s when they threatened to arrest Johnson if he didn’t stop reading the Bible aloud. Unless Johnson could obtain a permit from the city, he had to stop reading the Bible out loud or he would be arrested.

“Mr. Johnson does not need permission from the government to express his faith in public,” Chelsey Youman, Counsel for First Liberty, stated in a press release. “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.”

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


READING BIBLE ALOUD IN PUBLIC: PERMIT REQUIRED

Paul Johnson is a lifelong Tennessee resident. He often reads his Bible aloud in public and has done so without incident at several events. This includes town festivals and even college football games.

In August 2017, Johnson traveled to Sweetwater for a festival celebrating this summer’s solar eclipse. The festival was free of charge and open to all who wished to attend.

However, after he began reading his Bible aloud, city officials and police officers approached Johnson. Because he did not have a permit, police officers threatened to arrest him.

According to the police chief, Johnson’s reading aloud of the Bible constituted a “demonstration.” He also informed Johnson that he was not allowed to “demonstrate” at any location in Sweetwater without a permit.

“I was shocked that a city had a law banning anyone from reading the Bible on a public sidewalk without the city’s permission,” Johnson stated. “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’s demand letter pointed out that Sweetwater’s actions were unconstitutional. In addition, the letter noted that the city ordinance allows city officials—like in Johnson’s case—to make subjective, arbitrary permit decisions.


AMERICANS HAVE THE RIGHT TO SHARE FAITH IN PUBLIC

Sweetwater’s treatment of Johnson, while egregious, is not unprecedented.

UNDENIABLE: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America —First Liberty’s annual study of religious hostility—lists several similar incidents that have occurred, and where federal courts have overturned policies or government actions which restricted such free speech.

Click here to download a free copy of the 2017 edition of UNDENIABLE.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to the “free exercise” of religion—that includes peacefully reading the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk. First Liberty is committed to working to defend the freedom of Paul Johnson and all Americans to freely express their faith in public without government prohibitions or threats of arrest.

News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.

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To The American Legion:

As a grateful citizen, I support your effort to honor those who have fallen in battle and to keep the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial standing as a visible reminder of valor, sacrifice, endurance, and devotion.

Veterans memorials like the one in Bladensburg, MD are symbols reminding us of the sacrifice of our service members and the cost of war. Tearing down the Bladensburg Memorial would erase the memory of the 49 fallen heroes of Prince George’s County—like they never even existed.

We cannot allow the Bladensburg Memorial to be bulldozed.

Please know that you have my support and backing in your petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.