Supreme Court Plaza Is No Place for Protests

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge dismissed claims from two religiously motivated anti-war protesters who challenged the prohibition of political speech on the grounds of the Supreme Court.

The two want to hold candlelight and prayer vigils in the large oval plaza immediately outside the Supreme Court, rather than the sidewalk, to which federal law has relegated free speech activities.

John Payden-Travers and Midgelle Potts said their religious beliefs compel them to speak out against war, torture and the death penalty, and that the law violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Citing D.C. Circuit precedent, however, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found Wednesday that law does not substantially burden the free exercise of their religion because it restricts “only one of a multitude of means by which plaintiffs could engage in their religiously motivated activity.”

“Plaintiffs have not alleged that this is the only way or only place plaintiffs could pursue these religious convictions, and it is clearly not,” the 12-page ruling states. “Plaintiffs could speak out against and distance themselves from torture, war or the death penalty in countless ways.”

Potts has protested outside the Supreme Court and says her Unity Christian faith compels her to pray and speak out against the death penalty, war and torture.

Payden-Travers identifies as a post-denominational Christian and says he once led an organization that advocates for laws that would allow anti-war proponents to direct their taxes for non-military purposes.

He has chanted on the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court in opposition to the death penalty, and has twice held up a banner there that states “STOP EXECUTIONS.”

Payden-Travers argued that a vigil on the sidewalk, rather than the plaza, during nights when executions are taking place would not sufficiently signal to the public his conscientious objection to the Supreme Court’s approval of the death penalty.

Kollar-Kotelly found that argument unpersuasive.

“Plaintiffs do not allege in their complaint that their religions require them to demonstrate and pray in ways such that the public will associate their activities with the United States Supreme Court,” she wrote. “It simply alleges that their religions require them to ‘speak out’ and ‘distance themselves’ from certain practices, such as the death penalty.”

Kollar-Kotelly added that her ruling passes no judgment on the sincerity of the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.

The law they challenged is Section 6135 of the U.S. Code, which makes it “unlawful to parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.”

Kollar-Kotelly had stayed the matter pending the outcome of a similar case before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that also challenged restrictions on demonstrations in the Supreme Court Plaza.

The D.C. Circuit held in Hodge v. Talkin that the Supreme Court plaza is not a public forum, which allows the government to impose reasonable speech restrictions in that space.

It also found that Section 6135 does not target specific viewpoints, and that the restrictions “reasonably served the government’s ‘long recognized interests in preserving decorum in the area of a courthouse and in assuring the appearance (and actuality) of a judiciary uninfluenced by public opinion and pressure.’”

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