(CN) – A Columbia, La., police officer violated the First Amendment rights of street preachers by arresting them for protesting abortions at a busy intersection while holding graphic signs of aborted fetuses, the 5th Circuit ruled. But, the town cannot be held liable because the preachers failed to prove a widespread practice of discrimination against them.
The World Wide Street Preachers Fellowship sued the town after officer Robert Miles ordered them to leave church and state property in February 2005, saying, “They don’t want you here.”
Street preacher Allen Russell was arrested when he refused to leave, and was charged with resisting arrest and picketing without a permit. He spent the weekend in jail, according to the ruling.
The district court found that Miles violated the preachers’ rights to free speech, but that Columbia was not liable because the preachers failed to establish that the police department had “a persistent and widespread practice of restricting preachers’ rights by applying inapplicable statutes.”
Although the preachers said were repeatedly told they couldn’t protest without a permit when no permit is necessary to demonstrate in Columbia, the 5th Circuit upheld the district court’s decision that it was not enough to establish a widespread practice of violating the preachers’ constitutional rights.
The courts also ruled that Miles’s action in removing the preachers from the roadside did not stem from his objection to their graphic signs depicting aborted fetuses, but from complaints that the demonstrators were creating a distraction for drivers at a busy intersection.