As 1819 News reported yesterday, the city of Prattville wisely dropped charges against one of my clients for disorderly conduct. His crime? Preaching the Word of God in public with amplification without obtaining the proper permit first.
Before getting into the legal analysis, as a Christian, it was refreshing to see someone getting out in public to win souls for Christ. When I was a kid, the Evangelism Explosion method was the primary tool Christians used to witness. It involved asking the question, “If you died tonight and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ what would you answer?” During my lifetime, the primary method of evangelism shifted to relationship evangelism.
In theory, relationships should work best. But the trend now features Christians evangelizing just by “being nice” to people and waiting for them to ask why they’re different. In my experience, people appreciate that you’re nice, but they don’t necessarily want to hear about Jesus. Thus, if we’re serious about the Great Commission, then we need to find other ways of getting the Word out.
That’s why I appreciated this street preacher, Angelo Wilson. In a time where passivity reigns and people are going to hell on our watch, Wilson wasn’t content to let that happen.
Which is what made his arrest so heinous.
It would be one thing if he were too loud and people were complaining (reasonably) about the volume. Even evangelists don’t have the right to leave people with hearing damage or to make an environment so uncomfortable that people can’t work.
But that’s not what happened. Nobody complained; Wilson was simply arrested for not having a permit.
There were five different ways that this charge was legally wrong.
First, preaching without a permit is not disorderly conduct. Prattville has a city ordinance that anyone using amplification must get a permit first, but Wilson was not charged with violating that ordinance. Instead, they charged him with violating state criminal law. Even if one is making too much noise, the disorderly conduct law says an individual must have the intent to annoy, alarm, or cause public inconvenience as he does it. The notion that preaching the Word is annoying, alarming, or causing public inconvenience is, frankly, offensive.
Second, Wilson’s charges violated the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment. Believe it or not, state law can protect liberty even more than federal law does. The Alabama Constitution allows infringements on religious liberty to stand only if (1) the government is protecting an interest of the highest order (such as protecting life or limb), and (2) it does so in the least restrictive manner. Clearly, stopping a preacher from preaching in public is not an interest of the highest order. The city also could have waited until someone complained, but they did not do so.
Third, the charges violated the federal Free Exercise Clause. While the courts have unfortunately not given the Free Exercise Clause the respect it deserves, the courts have held that discriminating against religious groups is wrong. In Wilson’s case, we had evidence that the police didn’t always enforce the ordinance, and such selective enforcement is unconstitutional.
Fourth, if Prattville had somehow pivoted from the disorderly conduct statute back to the noise ordinance, there is a good case that the licensing scheme violates the Free Speech Clause of the Alabama Constitution. As I argued last year to the Alabama Supreme Court (and for which I was commended by Chief Justice Parker), the heart of the Alabama Constitution’s Free Speech Clause is freedom from prior restraints. People are still liable for causing a nuisance if they get too loud, but the objective is to ensure people don’t have to get the government’s permission before they speak.
Likewise, the noise ordinance may violate the Free Speech Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In the 1940s, the U.S. Supreme Court held that requiring people to get a permit from the police before using amplification is unconstitutional. While subsequent decisions have made that rule easier to get around, it may very well have applied here.
Fortunately, the city wised up on the day of the trial and dropped the charges against Wilson in exchange for a promise to get a permit in the future. The fight over the constitutionality of that ordinance will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, at least Prattville had enough sense to drop the charges.
In America, and especially in Alabama, we don’t charge people criminally for preaching the eternal truths upon which our society is founded and our constitutions protect. I hope this never happens again.
Matt Clark is the President of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty, a conservative nonprofit law firm that fights for limited government, free markets, and strong families in the courts. His column appears every Friday in 1819 News. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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