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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
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Baptists Can’t Sue Over Festival Preaching Rules

CHICAGO (CN) - A group of Baptists lack standing to sue Chicago over preaching restrictions at a summer festival hosted by a nearby Catholic church, the 7th Circuit ruled.

The three-judge panel ruled that the city has no official policy threatening the group's First Amendment right to preach at the annual summer event.

The St. Symphorosa Catholic Church hosts a multiday public festival each year, during which it obtains a city permit to close portions of two public streets to traffic.

In 2008 Frank Teesdale, pastor of the Garfield Baptist Church a few blocks away, attended the festival with members of his church as part of a street ministry. The Baptists carried a bullhorn, signs and banners, and handed out gospel tracts to attendees.

One of St. Symphorosa's private security guards, an off-duty Chicago police officer named Ray Kolasinski, told Teesdale that he could preach at the festival, but could not use the bullhorn or distribute unapproved literature.

When Teesdale refused to cooperate, Kolasinski handcuffed him and brought him to the police station. Teesdale was arrested on trespass charges, which were eventually dismissed, and the pastor was released on bond later that evening.

Almost a year later, the church, its pastor and four congregants sued the city, claiming it violated their First Amendment rights and Teesdale's Fourth Amendment rights.

Three days before the 2009 festival, the Baptist church sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to safeguard their right to preach at the upcoming festival.

The city filed a rushed response, arguing that St. Symphorosa could exclude the Baptists, and that the city had a "significant interest" in siding with the Catholic church.

At the district court's urging, the two groups came to a temporary agreement allowing the Baptists to attend the festival and preach without a bullhorn or large signs.

Meanwhile, the case proceeded in federal court, and in March 2010 U.S. District Judge William Hart dismissed the First Amendment claims, ruling that the city had no official policy violating the plaintiffs' rights.

The Fourth Amendment claims continued to discovery, and last May, Hart ruled in part for the city. He said officers had probable cause to arrest Teesdale for disorderly conduct, but he sided with the Baptists on their claim that the city's official policy jeopardizing their First Amendment rights at future festivals.

Judge Daniel Manion of the 7th Circuit said Hart's decision "was based on the city counsel's misguided legal argument" that the Baptists "did not have an unlimited First Amendment right to preach at the festival and that St. Symphorosa could exclude the plaintiffs in order to preserve its message."

Hart had inferred from the parties' temporary agreements - the 2009 and 2010 standby orders - that the city "continues to contend it can lawfully stop plaintiffs' proposed expression."

During oral argument, the city conceded that its underlying legal argument was faulty and that the city has no official policy barring the Baptists from preaching at upcoming festivals. Though the city's about-face essentially rendered the case moot, the 7th Circuit had to decide if the city's earlier position could be construed as an official policy.

"We hold that it does not," Manion wrote. "A mere legal position, without anything more, is insufficient to constitute an official policy."

The 7th Circuit vacated and remanded with instructions to dismiss.

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