In one of the more egregious violations of free speech and religious freedom in quite some time, a 63-year-old woman named Gail Blair was banned from a public park in Westerly, Rhode Island last June for a period of two years. Why? For sharing Jesus with park patrons and handing out tracts of the Gospel of John.
Ms. Blair is blind.
With the help of attorneys from First Liberty Institute, she filed a complaint of religious discrimination with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights. Recently, her complaint was settled when the entity that banned Ms. Blair, the Westerly, Rhode Island Memorial and Library Association, agreed to reverse its ban.
Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty, commented on the settlement. “We commend the Westerly, Rhode Island Memorial and Library Association for resolving the case and recognizing our client’s religious liberty. Our client is thrilled that she can once again enter the park across the street from her home and talk with other visitors.”
The retired nurse and her husband moved into an apartment across the street from the park in 2014, partly in order to allow her easy access to the park. She would spend time in the park, offering small tracts containing the Gospel of John to passersby, and engage in conversation about Jesus Christ with those who were willing to talk to her.
The library association, however, claimed she was “accosting” park visitors and littering, the latter charge related to the tracts she gave out that others supposedly left on the ground. In at least one instance, the police were called to enforce the ban. She was even cautioned a second time by police for attending a function in the park conducted by her own church.
A public park is a “quintessential public forum,” according to long-established Supreme Court precedent on the First Amendment, where free speech enjoys its highest protection. It is impermissible for government to regulate speech in such a forum where such regulation disfavors certain speech. Although the library association never admitted to religious animus against Ms. Blair’s religious speech, its behavior certainly pointed in that direction.
The settlement vindicates Ms. Blair’s rights, and allows her to continue to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in the park she loves.
Photo by Kelli Butler
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