Just a Darn Minute, Pastor Tells New Orleans

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A pastor with a passion for talking about Jesus on Bourbon Street at night sued the city over an ordinance that bans “any Christian speech on Bourbon Street at night.”
     In his federal complaint, Paul Gros says that “because Pastor Gros firmly believes a large number of people found on Bourbon Street at night desperately need to have saving faith in Jesus Christ, he wants to go there at that time and share the Gospel message with them.”
     Unfortunately, a 2011 city ordinance prevents religious preaching from sundown to sunup, according to the complaint.
     “Pastor Gros is a professing Christian and pastor of Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church,” one block from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, the complaint states.
     “For the last thirty (30) years, Pastor Gros has ventured outside the doors of the church and shared his Christian faith with those found in the French Quarter community. Anyone is welcome to join him in worship at his church, but that’s not why Pastor Gros witnesses about his faith. He yearns for people to know Jesus.”
     The complaint adds: “Pastor Gros has no intent to harass anyone, encourage violence, or to express himself in any way other than in a peaceful manner.
     “Pastor Gros shares his faith in various ways. Sometimes he preaches; other times he hands out tracts and/or carries portable signs. But more than any other way, Pastor Gros likes to engage individuals in respectful, one-on-one discussions about Jesus and the Christian faith.
     “Going out into the French Quarter, Pastor Gros particularly wants to witness and share the Gospel on Bourbon Street at night.”
     Bourbon Street is in the heart of the French Quarter.
     “Being one of the most famous venues in the world, Bourbon Street is known for bars, burlesque clubs, and night life. Many establishments stay open all night and the French Quarter is one of the few places in the United States where possession and consumption of alcohol in open containers is allowed on the street,” the complaint states.
     “Though largely quiet during the day, Bourbon Street comes alive at night, attracting large numbers of visitors after dark. This is particularly true during French Quarter festivals, like Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence. But on any given night there are a significant number of people present on Bourbon Street, reveling and frequenting the various establishments.
     “Because Pastor Gros firmly believes a large number of people found on Bourbon
     Street at night desperately need to have saving faith in Jesus Christ, he wants to go there at that time and share the gospel message with them.”
     But in October 2011, New Orleans passed an “aggressive solicitation” ordinance, Gros says.
     The ordinance, “the Religious Speech Ban codified at section 54-419 of the New Orleans City Code, includes a provision that prohibits religious as well as political and social expression on Bourbon Street at night,” the complaint states.
     The ordinance states: “It shall be prohibited for any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose disseminating any social, political, or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise.” Infractions are punishable by up to a $500 fine or 6 months in jail.
     Gros says that for several years he “has made it habit to go on Bourbon Street every Tuesday and Friday night to share his Christian message.”
     But in May, the pastor, his wife, another pastor and a friend went to Bourbon Street to preach and were stopped from doing so.
     “Upon receiving the order to stop, Pastor Gros asked to speak to the highest-ranking police officer and was directed to Officer [M. J.] Field. Officer Field confirmed that the law precluded any Christian speech on Bourbon Street at night. (g 32)
     “Pastor Gros inquired of the basis for this order, and he was subsequently shown on a smart phone the text of the ‘aggressive solicitation’ ordinance, with his attention being directed to the provision banning religious expression between hours of sunset and sunrise,” the complaint states.
     Gros says that’s unconstitutional.
     “The New Orleans Religious Speech Ban, set out in section 54-419 of the New
     Orleans City Code, serves to chill and deter Pastor Gros’s expression,” the complaint states.
     “If not for the textual ban on his speech set out in the Religious Speech Ban, and the fear he might get arrested for violating the law, Pastor Gros would regularly go to Bourbon Street at night-every Tuesday and Friday night-and evangelize to people found there.
     “If not for the Religious Speech Ban, Pastor Gros would also attend French Quarter festivals, like Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence, and witness during those events.
     “Because of the existence of the Religious Speech Ban and the penalties prescribed for violating it, Pastor Gros did not attend the Southern Decadence event that occurred this past Labor Day weekend on September 1, 2012. He feared arrest. And Pastor Gros soon learned that his fear was well-founded, discovering that several people communicating a religious message were arrested or threatened with arrest for violating §54-419.”
     Gros says the law will prevent him from preaching during Mardi Gras next year, out of fear of arrest.
     “The Religious Speech Ban and the fear of arrest it induces severely limits Pastor
     Gros’s constitutionally protected expression on a public street,” the complaint states.
     Gros seeks declaratory judgment and an injunction.
     Named as defendants are the City of New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the City Council members, Chief of Police Ronal Serpas, and Police Officer M.J. Field.
     Gros is represented by Nate Kellum with the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis.

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