A federal complaint filed by Seminole Baptist Church Pastor Raymond Williamson alleges the city of Foley violated his right to religious expression and due process when it passed an ordinance which seems tailored to preventing the preacher and church members to demonstrate at the intersection of State Highway 59 and U.S. Highway 98, a heavily trafficked corner where the church has evangelized for years.
Williamson is represented by Nathan Kellum, an attorney with the Memphis, Tennessee, based Center for Religious Expression, a nonprofit Christian legal organization. The complaint lists the city of Foley, Foley Police Chief David Wilson and Foley Police Lt. Otis Miller as defendants.
According to the complaint, Williamson has led an evangelical street ministry at the busy Foley intersection since 2006. The number of people with Williamson varies from a handful to more than 20. Williamson allegedly did not encounter any opposition from the city to his demonstrations until 2013, when Miller approached the group and told Williamson they needed a permit, according to the complaint.
Later in 2013, Williamson was informed by the Foley Police Department the city was in the process of updating its parade ordinance to regulate his brand of religious demonstration.
In 2014, Foley updated the 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.”
Any person wishing to hold a parade or demonstration, as defined by Foley’s ordinance, must first seek a permit from the police chief, who is then asked to make a judgment call on whether to allow or deny the permit. Applicants must apply for the permit no less than 10 days before the proposed event.
In a statement, Kellum said requiring a permit for citizens to exercise free speech on public sidewalks is unconstitutional, considering the traffic itself constitutes an assembly.
“The ordinance effectively prevents anyone from speaking in any public place in Foley without a permit because 19 or more people will always pass by in vehicles,” Kellum said. “That is downright ridiculous.”
There is a $500 fine and potential six months’ imprisonment for violating the ordinance.
“Subjecting preaching and witnessing on public ways to government licensing is a clear violation of the First Amendment,” Kellum said. “Our Constitution protects everyone’s right to speak publicly without having to secure the government’s permission first.”
Elsewhere in Baldwin County, Daphne Police Capt. Jud Beedy said in his 21 years with the Eastern Shore city he did not recall an instance where police had serious issues with street preachers. The city does not require permits for those wishing to engage in free speech activities. He said Daphne Police evaluate each assembly on a case-by-case basis.
“We believe it is a freedom of speech issue, and as long as you aren’t threatening anyone or inciting a dangerous situation, you are free to speak in a public place,” Beedy said. “Sidewalks are public places.”
Beedy said Loxley street preacher Orlando Bethel, who notoriously sent an anti-Santa Claus message by dressing up as Santa in a devil mask at various Christmas functions in Mobile and Baldwin counties, came to Daphne on occasion with very few problems.
“We knew him, we knew what he was about, so we just kind of talked to him and treated him with respect,” Beedy said. “But it never rose to the occasion where we had to take any action.”
At the beach, Sgt. Jason Woodruff said to his knowledge Gulf Shores has not had issues with street preaching.
“As long as people aren’t disrupting traffic or inciting violence, we try to just let them exercise their free speech rights,” he said.
Bethel filed a complaint against the city of Mobile following his arrest for disorderly conduct during a 2009 Mardi Gras parade downtown. Officers asked Bethel to take down a sign which said, “God hates you sinners repent in Jesus name live sin free” and claimed he was harassing the crowd. Nearby, a mother told police Bethel was calling her 13-year-old daughter names and telling her she would burn in hell.
When he would not cease his conduct, officers arrested Bethel, who later claimed his First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. In 2011, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found Bethel did not produce sufficient evidence to support the claims.
According to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office online jail records, Bethel has been arrested and held at the Baldwin County Corrections Center at least five times since 2004 for disorderly conduct and trespassing.
Attorneys Alicia Corley and Andrew Rutens from Galloway, Wettermark, Everest & Rutens LLP are representing the city of Foley in the Williamson complaint. Through their attorneys, the city filed a motion asking for an extension of time, which was granted Oct. 2 by Judge William H. Steele, and gave it until Friday to file an answer to the complaint. The city did not respond to requests for comment prior to deadline.