ARRESTED FOR PREACHING THE GOSPEL – IN ALABAMA?
May 1, 2023 | View PDF
Maybe in North Korea, maybe in Cuba, maybe in Iran – but not in the United States, the land of religious liberty.
Well, maybe in Boston, or San Francisco – but certainly not in Selma, Alabama, right in the center of the Bible belt.
But it happened. A man was arrested for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the street.
It was Halloween 2022. People in Selma were walking, some in costume, in an annual Monster March. And Rickey Caster, a Georgia street evangelist accompanied by his sister, came to tell them about Jesus Christ.
All went well for awhile. But then a police vehicle parked beside Rickey, and an officer demanded to see Rickey's permit. Rickey said he didn't need a permit to preach, but the officer said he needed a permit because he was using a microphone. Rickey then set down the mike and began preaching without it, but the officer still insisted he had to stop. His sister then asked whether Rickey could preach on a different street corner, but the officer was adamant. Deciding that he must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), Rickey continued to preach, whereupon the officer handcuffed him, placed him in the patrol car, and took him to the police station where he was booked and released pending trial.
The police charged Rickey with disorderly conduct in violation of the Code of Alabama 13A-11-7. The complaint alleges that he "cause[d] a public disturbance by blasting his voice over several speakers, at parents and children," and that he "placed his speakers within inches of said participants as they crossed over to the southwest side of the sidewalk."
Fortunately, or perhaps we should say providentially, Rickey made several wise choices. First, he and his sister videoed the entire event, and the video clearly refutes the officer's account. The video proves that Rickey set up his speakers, not "inches," but clear across the street from the pedestrians, although some of them did come close to him during the march. He was speaking loudly enough to be heard, but he wasn't shouting, he wasn't getting into people's faces, and he wasn't threatening or insulting people. The people didn't seem bothered by his preaching. Most hardly took notice; a few looked his way, and a few spoke words of encouragement like "Preach it!" When the patrol car arrived, several made comments like "He's not bothering us." Rickey was respectful toward the officers, always addressing them as "Sir," but he was firm about his right and duty to preach the Word of God.
Second, Rickey promptly sought legal help. He contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom, which referred him to the Foundation for Moral Law, a nonprofit legal foundation in Montgomery, AL for which I serve as Senior Counsel. Together with Foundation attorneys Talmadge Butts and Katrinnah Darden, we began to prepare Rickey's defense.
The disorderly conduct statute prohibits "abusive or obscene language" and "unreasonable noise." It sounds like the kinds of prosecutions that took place during the civil rights era, but race played no role in this case. Rickey is black; the arresting officer and the officer who accompanied him are black; the prosecutor and the judge are also black. But the principle is the same. Free exercise of religion and free speech are civil rights, and Rickey's civil rights were violated. Rickey's speech certainly wasn't obscene, so the City could only claim that it was "abusive." But is street preaching abusive? A few might think so, but many might view it favorably. We prepared to argue that the statute as applied was void for vagueness and violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process of law because it did not give adequate notice of what was prohibited.
We prepared a motion to dismiss the charge. In the motion we argued that Rickey did not violate the statute, and further that even if he did violate it, the statute was unconstitutional because of vagueness, and because of the free exercise of religion and free speech and free speech clauses of the First Amendment.
We also noted the case of Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, 373 U.S. 262 (1963). The Supreme Court in that case ruled that Rev. Shuttlesworth and his fellow demonstrators had a right to demonstrate without a permit, and when the City refused them a permit, they had a right to conduct their demonstration without it. The Court further noted that the requirement of a permit was "prior restraint," requiring advance permission to exercise the right of free speech, which is highly disfavored in American law; see Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931). We were convinced that this prohibition on prior restraint applied to Rickey, and we were hopeful that the court would grant our motion to dismiss.
So on March 29, Rickey, Talmadge, Katrinnah, and I drove to Selma for Rickey's trial. The courtroom was filled with people waiting for their cases to be called. Then the prosecutor entered the courtroom and asked to talk with us in the back room. There we explained the case to him, along with our factual and constitutional objections. He spoke to the officer, and they agreed to dismiss the charge. Selma is Bible belt country, and they don't want to seem hostile to preaching. But the officer wanted to make a statement to the court. He said Rickey had a constitutional right to preach and he was welcome to preach again in Selma, but others have rights too, and Rickey needs to respect them.
Rickey was sitting next to me, and he whispered that he hadn't been disrespectful and wanted to answer the officer's remarks. But I whispered back, "Rickey, you've won. Now it's best to just thank the court and keep quiet until we get out of the courthouse." He agreed.
Rickey is a fine man of God, and we are thankful for the privilege of having represented him. May he continue to preach God's Word and lead many precious souls to Christ.
The Foundation's offices are located at One Dexter Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36104. If you have a case involving constitutional liberties, please call us at (334) 262-1245. If you would like to support the work of our Foundation or learn more about us, please go to our website at http://www.morallw.org
Colonel Eidsmoe is a retired Air Force Judge Advocate who serves as Professor of Constitutional Law for the Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy (www.obcl.edu). He pastors two country churches and lives with his wife Marlene in rural Pike Road, Alabama.