CINCINNATI (CN) – A pair of street preachers ejected from the 2015 Nashville Pride Festival and threatened with arrest argued Wednesday before the Sixth Circuit that their First Amendment rights were violated by event and security staff.
John McGlone and Jeremy Peters sued the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, in 2016, following an incident at the 2015 Nashville Pride Festival.
The festival, held annually in June at Public Square Park, is a ticketed event with fences and barricades located at various areas around the park.
McGlone and Peters – “street preachers who believe that homosexuality is a sin … and preach using bullhorns” – tried to spread their message outside the festival on June 27, 2015, according to court records.
The two men preached on a public sidewalk just outside the festival’s entry gate, but were approached and asked to leave by security just a few minutes after they arrived.
They complied and spent the next several hours across the street, where they used bullhorns to voice their opposition to the festival.
The federal complaint filed by McGlone and Peters claimed their First Amendment rights had been violated when they were not allowed to preach in the public area immediately outside the festival, but U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw Jr. in Nashville disagreed.
Granting the government’s motion for summary judgment, Crenshaw conceded that the preachers’ speech is protected, but ruled that their exclusion from the festival area was justified.
“In this case, the facts are undisputed tfat plaintiffs continued to preach with bullhorns for some four to five hours during the Festival and their message was heard loud and clear by those passing by,” the judge wrote in a 20-page opinion last September.
Crenshaw continued, “While they may have wanted to preach on permitted festival ground instead of on the perimeter, the court’s ‘task is to strike a balance between the rights’ of event organizers and counter protesters, ‘while at all times remaining true to the essence of the First Amendment.’ The balance in this case tips in favor of Metro.”
Attorney David Markese argued on behalf of the preachers Wednesday, and told the panel of Sixth Circuit judges that the city’s creation of a “safe space” for event organizers and participants violated his clients’ First Amendment rights.
“It’s telling that no one was asked to leave [the festival] except these individuals,” Markese said.
The attorney argued that because the preachers did not block the entrances or exits of the festival and caused no interference with participants, they should not have been asked to leave the “queuing area” just outside the ticketed area.
U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore took issue with the preachers’ use of bullhorns, and asked if their use affected the case.
Markese said they did not, and again stressed that the preachers did not interfere with the message of the festival.
Attorney Keli Oliver represented the city of Nashville, and asked the panel to uphold the lower court ruling.
She said moving the preachers a few feet across the street was a “reasonable time, place, and manner restriction.”
Oliver disputed her opposing counsel’s claim that the preachers did not disrupt the festival, citing video evidence submitted at the district court level.
“There was a big crowd [around the preachers] and you had to do some maneuvering to get around,” she told the panel.
She also claimed the preachers were wearing shirts with anti-gay slogans.
Oliver cited the 1996 Sixth Circuit case Sistrunk v. City of Strongsville, in which the court ruled that a Bush-Quayle campaign rally could exclude individuals that wanted to wear Bill Clinton buttons to the event.
She argued that Sistrunk dealt with the same type of conflict between two opposing “expressive messages,” and that organizers and law enforcement were entitled to ask the preachers to leave the queuing area.
“The First Amendment does not give you the right to stand exactly where you want,” Oliver said.
The all-female panel also included U.S. Circuit Judges Alice Batchelder and Joan Larsen.
No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.