Park Board stands by its decision to allow controversial religious activist at Pride Festival

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June 21, 2010 // UPDATED 5:19 pm - June 22, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is sticking to its guns in a tense free-speech dispute involving this weekend’s Pride Festival.

The Park Board this afternoon ignored an ultimatum from Twin Cities Pride lawyers, who gave the board a 4 p.m. deadline to reverse its decision to allow Hayward, Wisc., resident Brian Johnson into Loring Park during this weekend’s Pride Festival. Johnson is a religious activist who views homosexuality as a sin. Over the past 10 years, he has appeared at the Pride Festival in order to express his views, often times clashing with organizers and participants.

With the 4 p.m. deadline past, Twin Cities Pride lawyers are now threatening to take emergency legal action, requesting either a temporary restraining order against Johnson or a temporary injunction against the Park Board.

“The board is erring on the side of free speech,” said board President John Erwin, who acknowledged that he himself is both openly gay and a Christian. “I personally think that Mr. Johnson is on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the God I know. But I also think he has the right to be wrong in the park.”

Erwin went on to say that denying an individual access to a public space because of his views sets a “dangerous precedent.”

Eileen Scallen, co-counsel to the Pride Festival, said it was not Johnson’s presence in the park that Twin Cities Pride objects to.

“We welcome him as an attendee, and he can certainly speak to any other attendee as any of our other 200,000 people can,” she said. “He is not permitted to bring his material into the park and distribute those. Because that would turn him into an active participant. We require people to be in a booth.”

Scallen noted that 14 other religious organizations who are affirming of gay people and their families will be at the festival.

Johnson did man a booth at the 2008 event. But he was denied a booth at the 2009 festival after having been found to have allegedly lied on his vendor application. That year, he showed up anyway, caused a disruption and was arrested for trespassing.

“He offers a free Bible, but then he offers a sermon on how you’re going to hell unless you change your sexual orientation,” Scallen said. “We had to spend a good deal of time removing him from the park.”

Twin Cities Pride lawyers argue that the Park Board's decision violates a 1995 Supreme Court ruling, which states that a private organization holding a permit to use a public street for expressive purposes could not be compelled by the government to include a group whose message is different from the organizers’.

“Ironically, in that case, a Boston parade organizer denied a GLBT group from participating,” Scallen said.

Erwin did not distinguish between Johnson attending the festival and participating in it. He said that the park board had no problem with him handing out Bibles, but “if he does anything to warrant removal, that will happen again.”

The timing of the park board decision has especially rankled Pride Festival organizers. Though the decision to allow Johnson’s attendance was made in late April, Twin Cities Pride did not find out until June 8. They now have only three days to take emergency legal action before crowds arrive on Saturday.

“I can’t speculate as to their motives in not communicating with us,” Scallen said. “It could just be negligence. I would prefer to think that they are our friends. We have been in Loring Park for 33 of the 38 Pride festivals, and we’ve always had a good relationship with them. This is absolutely dumbfounding.”

Erwin admitted at the press conference that “we should have told Pride earlier.”

The Pride Festival runs in Loring Park from June 26–27. Organizers are expecting more than 200,000 attendees.