Parks update // Pride Fest preacher files lawsuit against Park Board

Brian Johnson, an Evangelical Christian of Hayward, Wis., who wants to spread the message of Christ in Loring Park during the annual GLBT Pride Fest, has filed a lawsuit against the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for violating his free speech rights. 

Johnson is asking for an injunction from the U.S. District Court of Minnesota that would allow him and his family to roam the Loring Park grounds at this June’s festival while handing out Bibles. He also wants nominal damages, which acknowledge that his rights have been violated. 

Johnson’s complaint stems from a Park Board decision last May to keep Johnson and his Bibles on the southwest corner of Loring Park, a place where Johnson says is empty of festival attendees. 

The Park Board decision came after mediation with Pride Fest that eventually led to the idea of keeping non-permitted vendors in a designated area and allowing for a literature drop box where Johnson could place his Bibles. He is allowed to walk the park, but not hand out literature. 

Johnson says being limited to one part of Loring Park is unacceptable and a violation of his First Amendment rights, according to the complaint filed on March 30. 

“A booth outside of the Pride Fest event did not allow Johnson to reach his intended audience [those attending Pride Fest] with his message via Bibles,” the complaint states.

The complaint alleges that Pride Fest organizers handed out maps calling Johnson’s booth area the “no pride zone.” 

The Park Board made the decision to limit Johnson to the corner of the park after an effort to settle a lawsuit filed by Twin Cities Pride. Pride had asked for a temporary restraining order to keep Johnson out the park. 

Twin Cities Pride had given Johnson permits to operate a booth at the event from 1995 until 2009, when new management decided his message went against Pride’s message. Johnson was arrested in 2009 for trespassing at the event, but charges were later dropped. 

Dot Belstler, executive director of Twin Cities Pride, said the lawsuit’s characterization of Johnson’s booth location is inaccurate. She says it’s at one of the main entry points to the festival, at Lyndale and 15th. 

The recent lawsuit, on several occasions, says Johnson is not confrontational when attending the festival. His lawsuit says “Johnson has developed a deep, abiding concern for individuals in the GLBT community.”

Belstler called Johnson a “nice gentleman,” but said conversations can often change in nature from friendly to condemning. 

“He then tells people they’re going to hell and they’re an abomination, and that’s where we have a problem,” Belstler said. 

Johnson’s attorney, Jonathan Scruggs of the Alliance Defense Fund — a Christian organization that deals with religious freedom cases — said requiring Johnson to hand out Bibles in a separate area amounts to viewpoint discrimination. 

“Mr. Johnson doesn’t harass people or pursue people who don’t want to speak to him. He just engages in a conversation,” Scruggs said. “Just because Twin Cities Pride doesn’t like his message doesn’t mean they can clamp down and use government resources to essentially put a no-First Amendment speech zone in a public park.”

Park Board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said the Park Board would not comment on pending litigation. 

This year’s Pride Fest is scheduled for June 23-24. 

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com.