Gail Blair had to retire from nursing in the late 1980s because of a degenerative eye disease that left her totally blind by 1991. In 2014, Blair and her husband moved to an apartment across the street from Wilcox Park in Westerly, Rhode Island, specifically so she could have safe and easy access to the outdoors. The couple loves to walk through the 16-acre park, and, even when alone, Blair will visit the park because of its easy accessibility.
In June of last year, however, Gail, age 63, was banned from entering the park and the nearby public library for a period of two years.
Why? Because she was handing out pocket-sized tracts containing the Gospel of John to people in the park, and on some occasions, she shared Christ with them.
The park is managed by Westerly’s Memorial and Library Association (Library Association).
The police were called to the park by the Library Association because Blair was allegedly “accosting” people in the park, and some of the tracts she handed out were being discarded improperly and left on the ground. The police informed her she was banned from the park for two years and would be arrested for trespassing if she returned. She even received a follow-up warning call from the police after she was spotted inside the park while attending a function put on by her home church.
All of that violates Blair’s First Amendment rights, not to mention her right to due process before being punished by denying her access to public property. Blair, with the help of attorneys at First Liberty Institute, has filed a charge of discrimination against the Library Association with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights. Blair also alleges that someone in the Library Association doesn’t like Blair’s faith or her religious speech and instigated this ban because of it.
The story of this kind-hearted woman’s ministry in the park gives testimony to her personal life-long mission to care for others.
“Despite my blindness,” Blair says in the legal documents filed with the Commission, “my deep and abiding faith gave purpose in life. I have always done my best to care for others. In the beginning of my career I provided medical care as a nurse. But now I care for others in what I feel is an even more important sense, by bringing the good news of the Gospel to others so they can have eternal life.”
Her lawyers think this entire situation is outrageous. Jeremy Dys with First Liberty, said in a press release,, “Talking about your faith to people in a public park should never be a crime. Gail Blair simply wants the same rights as everyone else, to be free to talk to people about issues she cares about in a public park.”
A public park is a “quintessential public forum” for free speech, according to a long line of Supreme Court cases, and prohibiting religious speech in that space, while permitting other types of expressive activity, is unconstitutional. And the Library Association’s purported concern over littering should not be a deciding factor in this case either, as Blair has offered to pay for the cleanup of any tracts left lying on the ground from those who have discarded them.
The Library Association – and by extension, the town of Westerly – are quickly going to find out that taking on a blind woman armed with the Word of God as well as the Constitution is more than they can handle.
Photo by Kelli Butler