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VICTORY! Grandfather Can Read Bible Aloud in Public

Tennessee town reverses course after prohibiting Paul Johnson from peaceably reading Bible aloud in public during a town festival.

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December 22, 2017

The City of Sweetwater, Tennessee will let Paul Johnson freely express his faith—no permit required. Johnson is a Tennessee grandfather who enjoys sharing his faith. Earlier this year, city police threatened him with arrest if he did not stop reading his Bible aloud in public without a permit during a town festival. Although he applied for a permit, a city official promptly denied Johnson’s request.

Last month, First Liberty Institute and the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) sent a demand letter to the city on behalf of Johnson, asking the city to allow him to publicly read the Bible at future events and to apply its laws in a constitutional manner.

Three days later, city officials responded and informed First Liberty and the CRE that Johnson would be allowed “to peacefully share his religious beliefs in Sweetwater.” The letter also expressed appreciation to First Liberty and the CRE for pointing out the “constitutional infirmities” in a city ordinance and stated that the city “would appreciate any suggestions” for how to change the ordinance.

CITY REQUIRES PERMIT FOR PUBLIC BIBLE READING

A lifelong Tennessee resident, Johnson often reads his Bible aloud in public. He has done so without incident at several events, including town festivals and even college football games.

In August, Johnson traveled to Sweetwater for a festival celebrating this summer’s solar eclipse. However, after he began peaceably reading his Bible aloud, police officers approached Johnson. Even though he was in a public area and not obstructing the festival, they threatened to arrest Johnson if he continued.

The police chief interpreted Johnson’s reading aloud of the Bible as a “demonstration” and informed him that he was not allowed to “demonstrate” at any location in Sweetwater without a permit.

Sweetwater’s permit requirement was part of an unconstitutional city ordinance that allowed city officials to make subjective, arbitrary permit decisions about who could engage in public speech.

FIRST LIBERTY ACTION PROMPTS CITY TO CHANGE ORDINANCE

In their demand letter, First Liberty and the Center for Religious Expression pointed out the unconstitutional nature of both the ordinance and the city’s actions against Mr. Johnson.

“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.”

Following First Liberty’s action, the City of Sweetwater quickly issued a response, stating:

You may accept this letter as your requested written assurance that the City of Sweetwater, Tennessee, will allow Mr. Johnson to peacefully share his religious beliefs in Sweetwater without requiring him to apply for or obtain any permit pursuant to Ordinance 16-110 of the Municipal Code of the City of Sweetwater, Tennessee. 

The City appreciates your bringing to its attention the constitutional infirmities in the ordinance identified in your correspondence. We would appreciate any suggestions you might have regarding potential amendments to or replacement of Ordinance 16-110 that would meet your perceived constitutional requirements.

PROTECTING THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO EXPRESS RELIGION IN PUBLIC

First Liberty is committed to defending Americans’ rights to freely express and exercise their religion without obstruction from unconstitutional ordinances. Peaceful religious expression—such as reading the Bible aloud in public—is protected and guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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.