The attorney representing Seminole Baptist Church Pastor Raymond Williamson in his First Amendment complaint against the city of Foley has filed for summary judgment in the case ahead of a non-jury trial scheduled in November.
Williamson filed a federal complaint in August 2015 alleging the city of Foley violated his right to religious expression and due process by passing an ordinance which seems tailored to preventing the preacher and church members from evangelizing at the intersection of State Highway 59 and U.S. Highway 98, a heavily trafficked corner where the church has maintained a presence for years.
According to the complaint, Williamson has led street ministry at the intersection since 2006. During one event in 2013, Williamson and members of his church were approached by the Foley Police Department and told they needed a permit to continue preaching there.
Later in 2013, Williamson was informed by the Foley Police Department the city was in the process of updating its parade ordinance to regulate religious demonstration.
In 2014, Foley followed through, updating its parade ordinance to include “… any march, ceremony, show, exhibition, pageant, footrace, procession, protest, demonstration, rally, picketing, assembly, convention, or similar conduct, in or upon any street or other public place in the city of Foley which is expected to include or which actually includes at least 20 people, counting all those present either to participate or witness the event.”
Williamson is represented by attorney Nathan Kellum, chief counsel of the Memphis, Tennessee-based Center for Religious Expression, who filed a motion for summary judgment in February. The motion asks a federal judge to rule on the case based on facts Kellum said neither side disputes. The city of Foley has until next week to respond.
“You go to trial when there are disputed facts — what color a traffic light was in a traffic accident, for example — and you need witnesses to speak on the stand,” Kellum said. “But in this case, I think everyone agrees on what the ordinance says and how it is applied, we just need the judge to decide the constitutionality of it.”
In his motion, Kellum argues there are no genuine issues in regard to the facts of the case. The only dispute, he claims, is the legality of applying the ordinance to Williamson’s speech.
The motion claims Williamson is entitled to summary judgment because the ordinance grants the Foley Police Department overly broad discretion in granting and denying permits.
“And the ordinance is further unconstitutional in its particular application to Williamson’s speech — imposing a flat ban on his expression on public sidewalks — that is not narrowly tailored to any significant government interest,” the motion reads.
According to court records, a judge granted Williamson a protective order in December allowing him to continue preaching at the intersection while the case proceeds through the court system.
Kellum said the preliminary injunction allowed Williamson to continue doing something he had done for a long time without incident, prior to 2013.
“He had been able to preach at that location for so long without any problems prior to this,” Kellum said. “With the preliminary injunction, it just said that he has the freedom to continue doing that as the case progresses.”
The motion claims Williamson deserves nominal damages as well as declaratory and permanent injunctive relief against Foley’s ordinance.
“Foley’s permit scheme remains in force and Foley has made no indication it will interpret the ordinance in any way that will allow Williamson to engage in his chosen expression in the future,” the motion reads. “Therefore, Williamson stands in need of declaratory and permanent injunctive relief to ensure this permit scheme will no longer be invoked to restrict his religious speech on public sidewalks.”
A Feb. 16 order from Chief U.S. District Judge William H. Steele said the court will take the motion under submission on March 28.
According to Kellum, the case is significant because it involves the right of a preacher to continue sharing his views in a public place without interference from government.
“For Mr. Williamson, personally, it is about having the ability to share his faith in a public place, on a public sidewalk, where others have traditionally gone to share their own message because of the high visibility of the location,” Kellum said. “In this case, this ordinance seems to be specific to keeping Mr. Williamson from sharing his Christian faith there.
“In a broader sense, this case should alarm anyone who wants to have the freedom to share their view — religious or not — in public,” Kellum said. “We believe that right should be available to everyone.”
Attorneys Alicia Corley and Andrew Rutens of Galloway, Wettermark, Everest & Rutens LLP are representing the city of Foley in the complaint.
While they could not be reached for comment before deadline, in their Oct. 9, 2015, answer to Williamson’s original complaint they said the city’s parade ordinance “represents a valid exercise in municipal authority” and the city’s actions “represent the enforcement of a valid content-neutral regulation.”