NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Nine preachers and activists who were arrested on Sept. 1 after they allegedly yelled slurs during the Southern Decadence gay pride festival plan to sue the city of New Orleans over the constitutionality of part of its ordinance banning "aggressive solicitation" in the city's storied French Quarter.
The law, passed in 2011, prohibits "any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message" after dark.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she is concerned about any law that prohibits political speech and religious exercise. "This is a very problematic law," she said.
David Johnson, who leads a local group of preachers who did not get arrested, said police told his group not to pass out literature or talk to people on the street with their message during Southern Decadence. "It is a total violation of constitutional rights," he said.
Johnson said it is wrong for the ministers who were arrested to say God hates anyone, but that doing so should not be illegal. The Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice sent a letter to the city on behalf of Johnson with a demand it take steps to protect Johnson's freedom of expression.
But City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who sponsored the ordinance and who represents the French Quarter, said the city has a legitimate interest in protecting residents and visitors in the highly trafficked area of Bourbon Street at night.
She said aggressive solicitation can be a crowd-control issue, and people are allowed under the law to speak their messages if they "take five steps" off Bourbon Street. "This is really an issue of trying to protect public safety," she said.
Preachers show up at Southern Decadence every year to denounce homosexuality. Eight of those arrested this year were booked with violating the ordinance; one was arrested on suspicion of punching a police officer when he tried to take away a bullhorn.
One of the arrested men had held a sign saying "God hates homos," and a witness said the group had hurled anti-gay slurs.
French Quarter activist Leo Watermeier said he believes the law is reasonable. "They don't have a right to force you to hear them speak," he said.
Watermeier said there are public-safety issues involved when anti-gay preachers are aggressive and try to get reactions in confined spaces. "I think that affects the quality of the experience of visiting New Orleans," he said. "I can see how the city has an interest in that."
(Katherine Fretland writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
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