(CN) - When festivalgoers pelted Christians with trash for proselytizing at an Arab event, it was wrong for law enforcement to eject the evangelists, the en banc Sixth Circuit ruled.
The 2012 Arab International Festival, an event held in Dearborn, Mich., every year since 1995, proved to be the city's last.
Though many religious organizations registered with the festival to have a table where they could spread their message, a group called the Bible Believers instead chose to parade through the festival, waving banners and the impaled severed head of a pig. Their message was a warning that Muslims face eternal damnation for following a "pedophile" prophet.
As festivalgoers began to pelt the protesters with bottles and debris, officers with the Wayne County Sheriff's Department warned that it would charge the evangelists with disorderly conduct if they did not disperse.
The group's leader Ruben Chavez filed suit in Detroit with two other members, Arthur Fisher and Joshua DeLosSantos, claiming that their free-speech and religious rights had been trampled.
After a divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit rejected the free-speech case last year, the federal appeals court held an en banc hearing in March and sided with the Christian protesters 10-4 on Wednesday.
"Wayne County did not threaten the Bible Believers based on their decision to march with signs and banners, but based on the content of the messages displayed on the signs and banners," Judge Eric Clay wrote for the majority. "The county's disparate treatment of the Bible Believers was based explicitly on the fact that the Bible Believers' speech was found to be objectionable by a number of people attending the Festival."
Finding that the sheriffs did little to protect Chavez and his group, the majority said police could have quelled the situation without squelching the group's exercise of free speech and religion.
Clay noted that the mere presence of officers served to quiet the group throwing bottles, but that the angry group resumed once officers left.
"By the WCSO's own admission in its postoperation report, the totality of the officers' attempt to enforce the law constituted only a few verbal warnings being directed at the lawless adolescents and one individual being cited," Clay wrote.
Coupled with the Chavez's testimony that his sincerely held religious beliefs require him "to try and convert non-believers, and call sinners to repent," the court found that this evidence shows that the Bible Believers were not seeking to incite violence, and that therefore their speech was protected.
Wayne County had argued it lacked the manpower to suppress the large and violent crowd, but the court was unimpressed with the argument.
"The video record evinces next to no attempt made by the officers to protect the Bible Believers or prevent the lawless actions of the audience," Clay wrote.
For the majority, the evidence shows that Wayne County let its substantial police presence go "virtually unused."
"Wayne County claimed to have assigned more law enforcement personnel to the festival than had previously been assigned to crowd control when the President of the United States visited the area," Clay wrote. "We cannot justifiably set the bar so low for the police officers sworn to protect our communities (and occasionally the president) that there is any debate as to whether it is reasonable that the result of a purportedly sincere effort to maintain peace among a group of rowdy youths is few verbal warnings and a single arrest." (Parentheses in original.)
While seven judges joined Clay's opinion in full, two more joined in part.
Judges Griffen and Sutton each issued partially dissenting opinions, while Judges Gibbons and John Rogers dissented in full.
"Realistically viewed, the Bible Believers were hecklers seeking to disrupt the cultural fair," Rogers wrote, joined by four colleagues. "The police visibly attempted to reconcile the First Amendment rights of festivalgoers and the Bible Believers. There may have been much better ways for the police to handle this situation, but there was no First Amendment violation."
The majority claimed that the dissent "distorted" the factual record, exaggerating the danger that teens throwing bottles present.
"The dissent's unsupported, hyperbolic account of the Bible Believers as 'bruised and bloodied,' ignores any responsibility on the part of the WCSO to use some small part of its police force, and the aura of authority with which a sheriff's office is imbued, to attempt to protect the Bible Believers from the lawless behavior of the crowd," Clay wrote. "Similarly, because the WSCO made no genuine efforts to utilize its officers to prevent or punish the unlawful behavior of the adolescents, it is unfair, on this record, to characterize the crowd's conduct as 'undeterred by police presence.'"
Clay remanded to the lower court to calculate damages for Chavez and his group.
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