"Jesus lives," says a local pastor, just not for long on city transit benches.
At issue are ads local preacher Lawson Perdue has placed on city transit space for the past three years. The first year his signs said "Celebrate Jesus." Last year they said "Experience Jesus," and this year they say "Jesus is Lord."
Perdue said a city official told him "Jesus" will be barred from future ads after his contract expires July 10, because one person complained the signs established religion in violation of the First Amendment. City transit officials told The Gazette the matter was under review by the city Attorney's Office.
Contrary to Perdue's complaint, Mayor John Suthers told a member of The Gazette's editorial board the law most likely sides with Perdue and his signs.
The First Amendment forbids government officials from exercising prior restraint or other forms of censorship. Courts have carved out few exceptions.
Beyond preventing city officials from censoring content, the First Amendment obligates them to defend all reasonable forms of speech. If someone silences a street preacher on Main Street, police should intervene on behalf of the preacher.
They should likewise defend a priest of Satan, an atheist, a gay rights activist - or anyone promoting ideas, including those far outside the norm.
City officials can and should prohibit forms of communication that may directly incite violence or harm. We can't yell fire, if there is no fire, and cling to the First Amendment. Free speech does not protect blatantly hateful messages or obscenities that defy community standards.
The First Amendment expressly protects "Jesus is Lord" and other messages, such as "Allah, the only god" or "There is no god." It says, in part: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech ." The 14th Amendment extends First Amendment's restrictions on "Congress" to all other state-sanctioned governments, including city governments and their transit authorities.
If the city sells space on park benches for messaging, it abridges "freedom of speech" by saying the purchaser has no freedom to advertise "Jesus." The city also prohibits the "free exercise" of religion, which involves the right to advertise religious beliefs.
Few understand religious freedom better than Suthers, the former attorney general of Colorado. We called him to ask about the signs, and Suthers told us to "chill out." He only heard about the ad controversy Friday night, while attending a conference in Indianapolis, and said he is working to straighten it out.
"It's going to be fine," Suthers said.
Suthers believes the Jesus signs are protected speech, so long as city officials do not discriminate against ads that might challenge or insult Christian beliefs.
"My gut notion is, as long as we're willing to put up unsavory ads there is no problem here," Suthers said.
Perfect. The First Amendment demands protection of all peaceful forms of communication, no matter how insulting or offensive they may to any potential listeners. With this conflict going public, expect the Freedom from Religion Foundation to buy ad space on our benches. If it is available, they should not be denied.
Let's make sure Perdue and all others remain free to celebrate and advocate beliefs within the broad, permissive boundaries that protect our freedoms of religion and speech. Start by ensuring "Jesus" survives on city transit benches.
The Gazette Editorial Board