Friday, July 3, 2009

Free Speech Under Fire In Dearborn

Free speech is alive and well in America, but not if you are a Christian in Dearborn , Michigan. Members of Arabic Christian Perspective, (ACP) had been canvassing Dearborn, Michigan for years seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity. Their approach was low key. There was never any incidents. AINA News reports as follows about the group.

"Arabic Christian Perspective ("ACP") is an Anaheim-based charitable organization that does something anyone but an evangelical Christian might think extremely foolish: its members and volunteers try to convert Muslims to Christianity by attending their events and gathering near -- but not at -- their mosques. Its soft-spoken founder and director, George Saieg, is from the Sudan, where he witnessed firsthand the persecution of Christians by Muslims before emigrating to the U.S. in 1996. An ordained minister with the Calvary Church of Santa Ana, California, Saieg fearlessly approaches his mission with zeal and a reverence for the Bill of Rights.

That approach surprisingly has led to numerous success stories. Surprising because the penalty of Muslim conversion to Christianity is death -- all the more reason why ACP would wish to proceed with caution while carrying out its outreach efforts.

To that end, it spends tens of thousands of dollars each year on DVDs, booklets, Bibles and other literature to distribute. Its volunteers simply offer a packet of material to people walking by. No coercion is involved, no hard-sell, no in-your-face confrontation. Such an approach would not merely be counterproductive, but it could also turn hostile. And in five years of using this approach at the annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan, ACP has been very effective standing along the sidewalks that parallel the street where business establishments remain open to the general public and where the public is generally invited to roam."

A wide variety of groups avail themselves of an opportunity to present their ideas through street canvassing during the Arab International Festival. American law recognises public streets and parks as a public domain with extensive free speech rights. What happened when the Arabic Christian Perspective attempted to exercise their free speech rights in Dearborn? AINA News reports as follows as reported by their legal counsel.

"In past years, ACP's volunteers peacefully walked through the festival street, but voluntarily restricted themselves to passing out their material on the sidewalks. Visitors to the festival graciously accepted the material. Afterwards, volunteers would trek through the neighborhoods of Dearborn knocking on doors, often being invited in for tea or coffee. In fact, there has never been an incident involving violence or a threat of violence in all the past years.

That fact did not stop the Dearborn Police Department from ordering ACP to confine its volunteers to a distant corner location where they would be unlikely to draw many passersby. The police did not explain the basis for this action. Following their practice of providing advance notice of their visit to local police departments, ACP gave a courtesy call to Dearborn authorities. The courtesy only made the group a target.

As ACP's general counsel, I was contacted. I have seen cities hostile to religion before. I had sued Los Angeles County on behalf of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and its affiliated Individual Rights Foundation when the county removed a Cross from its seal. When Dearborn wouldn't budge, I recruited the Thomas More Law Center, a religious liberty law firm based nearby in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to initiate legal action and to obtain an immediate court order permitting ACP to distribute its material just as they done in each prior year."

Management of the festival offered a table to the ACP, with the understanding that its volunteers would not leave their post. AINA reports as follows .

"But after being offered two locations to pitch their tent, ACP was moved from its first choice in the center of the Festival near the police tent to a distant outpost, where the group handed out little more than a few hundred packets of material."

Other Christian groups working at the festival had far more sinister experiences. AINA continues its account.

"Elsewhere at the festival, and unknown to the Dearborn Police Department, were other Christians peddling their own material. Pat Rojas was one of them. Hounded by the festival's private security patrol, he and another evangelical Christian were taken from the sidewalk to the security tent, where they were detained and harassed before being physically ejected from the festival, driven out in a security vehicle, and ordered not to return. According to Rojas, "Hezbollah" was tattooed on their arms.

"One security guard tried to initiate a fight with us by saying all Christian Americans are losers, that our credit cards are all charged up, that our wives have left us, that our children hate us, and that we are all financially broke," a frustrated Rojas told me. "Another guard took my ID and refused to return it. My life was threatened."

What sort of legal precedent will prevail in Dearborn? Will the laws that protect free speech in the rest of Michigan and the United States hold sway there as well? Or will it be an enclave that has been ceded to extralegal groups invoking Sharia in lieu of the constitution?

Is free speech being ceded on the basis of "gentlemen's agreements?" The situation in Dearborn should be watched. America has many religious groups that view each other with disdain and distaste but who tolerate each other. The freedom we have to preach our politics and our faith to those who do not share them is central to our way of life. Many Muslims have found refuge in America from lethal strife in their countries of origin. They should be welcome in this country, but it is critical for them to respect the freedom of others that they themselves enjoy. It is understandable that Muslims in Dearborn may be repulsed and offended by Christian missionaries. This is their right. They can crumple their leaflets. They can voice disdain. But they have no right to silence anyone. The proper response of those who find free speech to be threatening is to use it themselves.

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