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Missionary Has Right to Leaflet Muslim Festival

(CN) - A Michigan city violated free-speech rights by refusing to let a missionary distribute Christian literature while walking around at the Arab International Festival, the 6th Circuit ruled.

Missionary George Saieg founded the now-defunct Arabic Christian Perspective, which he described in his complaint as a "national ministry established for the purpose of proclaiming the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ to Muslims."

Saieg claimed he saw the annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Mich., as an opportunity to "evangelize thousands of Muslims in one place" by walking around and handing out Christian literature since the city is home to a "big Muslim community" and the festival attracts 250,000 people each year.

But in 2009, around the time that Ronald Haddad was named Dearborn chief of police, the department issued a leafleting restriction to block Saieg and others from distributing leaflets while walking around the festival.

Saieg said Dearborn instead provided him with a poorly lit and located booth on the festival grounds.

But "booth-based evangelism" is trickier to pull off, Saieg claimed, since "the penalty of leaving Islam according to Islamic books is death.'" Saieg said Muslims are reluctant to approach a Christian booth and that he could be more effective by roaming the festival and speaking to Muslims more discreetly, according to the ruling.

Saieg sued the city and Chief Haddad for violating his First Amendment rights to free speech, free association and free exercise of religion. In 2010, a District Court held that the leafleting restriction was valid and that Saieg has other, admittedly not preferred options, to communicate his beliefs.

Thought that court refused to grant Saieg a temporary restraining order for the 2009 festival, the Cincinnati-based federal appeals court granted Saieg an injunction to pass out leaflets from the outer sidewalks and roads and the 2010 event.

After an April 2011 hearing on the merits, the court reversed the summary judgment finding originally awarded to the city.

"The leafleting restriction is not a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction," Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the majority of the three-judge panel, adding that Dearborn and Chief Haddad "therefore violated Saieg's First Amendment right to freedom of speech."

The ruling also affirms the trial court's judgment on all other claims and directs the District Court to consider granting Saieg an injunction for the upcoming 2011 festival, which starts June 17.

Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey filed a one-paragraph dissent, saying that she found the city's restrictions were reasonable.

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