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Gideons’ arrest sparks differing legal views

KEY LARGO, Fla. (BP)–A religious liberty organization has filed a motion for the charges to be dismissed against two men who were arrested in Key Largo, Fla., earlier this year for passing out Bibles in front of an elementary and middle school.

The two men, both members of a new group of The Gideons International in Key Largo, were arrested after being asked to leave the school by deputies from the sheriff’s office who were called by the school’s principal when she received complaints from parents.

According to the report from the Monroe County Sheriff’s office, Ernest Simpson, 43, and Anthony Mirto, 40, were told by the school’s principal, Annette Martinson, to stay off school property while distributing Bibles on a paved public bike path running in front of the K-8 school which houses more than 1,000 students.

David Cortman, senior counsel for Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund told the Florida Baptist Witness that the men had “legitimate business” at the school and had obtained permission from both the school and the sheriff’s office to distribute Bibles to children as they were leaving the school’s campus.

“It is unconstitutional to prohibit these gentlemen from distributing Bibles,” Cortman said, calling the environment a “traditional public forum” where there is “protected free speech.”

In a 64-page motion filed in Monroe County Court March 8, Cortman argues the men did not trespass and even if they had, passing out Bibles should be permissible.

“I think it’s a sad day in our country when two men get arrested for passing out Bibles in front of a public school,” Cortman said.

David Gibbs III, counsel for the Christian Law Association based in Seminole, Fla., however, said his firm was contacted but declined to represent the men. Gibbs said the CLA recommends 100 percent of the time that people obey the police — even if they think the police are wrong.

“Maybe the police don’t understand free speech or maybe the police don’t understand what you are trying to do,” Gibbs told the Florida Baptist Witness. “Then as Christians we have a duty to obey law enforcement and not to create the issue there on the street. That is the appropriate Christian response.”

Key Largo School is located on U.S. 1, the only major road providing access to the school and to a chain of islands making up the Florida Keys. It is one block from the ocean on the east and surrounded by undeveloped land to the north and south. The 14-mile bike path is connected to other bike paths which are planned to run eventually the length of the Keys.

A deputy from the sheriff’s office asked Simpson and Mirto to leave after observing them standing on a part of the bike path that overlaps the school’s parking lot where parents pick up children after school, according to the report.

“(A)fter receiving numerous complaints from parents at the office, (Martinson) approached both defendants and asked them to stay off school grounds and stay on the bike path or west of the bike path,” the sheriff’s report recounts. “Martinson further states she went to the south entrance of the school to check for others distributing Bibles and saw both defendants going onto the driveway of the school to hand out Bibles. At this point she contacted the sheriff’s office.”

When asked to stay no closer than a half mile from the school, Simpson and Mirto began to walk away, according to the report, but then Simpson looked around and tried twice to identify the deputy issuing them the order and then called the sheriff’s office to complain about the deputy’s actions once he arrived at Simpson’s truck which was parked in a no-parking zone just off the highway in front of the school. The men were arrested after they sat in the truck talking on their cell phones for more than five minutes, according to the arresting deputy.

Thomas Gray, who said he has been a Gideon for more than 35 years and is one of about eight in a local Gideons “camp” he helped start about six months ago, told the Witness he initially tried to contact the school officer to inform her of the Bible distribution but was told she was on vacation and they could proceed anyway. Gray said later that one of the deputies involved in giving him permission was Ralph Williams, who is also pastor of the Nazarene Church in Key Largo where Gray attends.

Giving the school a “courtesy notice” that they would be passing out Bibles in front of the school, Gray said he was given a go-ahead by the school secretary since the principal was unavailable at the end of the school day just prior to school letting out.

Gray, dressed in a business suit and tie, and other more casually dressed Gideons in other locations around the school were not arrested. There may have been some confusion when a parent took some of the Bibles onto school property and may have begun to pass them out, Gray admitted.

“The school is mistaken,” Gray said. “They did not see a Gideon on the land. The officer, when he came, did not do his job in identifying who was on the land. The Gideons were never on school property.”

Jerry Burden, executive director of The Gideons International, told the Witness he had no comment about the arrest of the men in Key Largo and referred to the organization’s website for information about the ministry’s distribution of Bibles at schools. Burden did confirm the website shows Bibles given to students in the fifth grade and up, and he confirmed that the process for a person to become a Gideon includes a letter of recommendation from an individual’s pastor.

The Gideons International has more than 250,000 members in more than 180 countries of the world. They are known for distributing Bibles in hotel rooms, prisons and jails; hospitals and schools, and the organization will send Bibles for distribution to members of the military when requested by military chaplains.

Gray said both Simpson and Mirto are new Gideons and were recommended to the organization by Steve Vetter, pastor of Key Largo Baptist Church, which is not a Southern Baptist church. Gray told the Witness the local Gideons camp did background checks on the men but was unaware that Simpson had been criminally charged and pled guilty to violations related to illegal lobster trapping in 2003 while Mirto and his ex-wife had an ongoing court dispute.

“I don’t t0hink a fishing violation is going to affect the character of a gentleman,” Gray said, describing Simpson and Mirto as Christian family men and businessmen whose children have attended or currently attend the school. According to the arrest report, Simpson is a mechanic and Mirto is a painter.

Vetter said Simpson has been attending the church for about seven years, while Mirto has been at the church approximately a year. Although Vetter said he remembers putting two or three names from his church on a recommendation list months ago, he has never written a letter of recommendation to the Gideons for either man, but supports them fully.

“As Christians we are not going to be second-class citizens and not fulfill all the rights we have,” Vetter told the Witness. “Nobody spoke back, nobody gave an attitude. They were told by the Gideons what to say and they were submissive in asking where they should stand.”

Admitting he heard complaints about how the distribution was slowing traffic and could have been a safety issue, Vetter downplayed those concerns, saying, “Truthfully, we could be doing a lot worse than standing outside of the school handing out Bibles.”

Vetter said the state in deciding to prosecute the case “has bitten off more than they can chew.” Gray agreed. He said the arresting deputy acted impulsively and in anger when the men were handcuffed and put into a sheriff’s car and taken to the jail.

Gibbs, meanwhile, said in looking at the issue from all sides that he believes the “first and foremost concern of any school official is the safety of the children.” To this end, there is a “tremendous liability” on the principal’s part to consider parents’ concerns when their young children are being approached by anyone while leaving school.

“Put yourself in the shoes of the school official, or this principal. She’s sitting here hearing from the people that have the God-given authority over these young children, not (from) teenagers who would be able to deal with people on the street,” Gibbs said. “We are dealing with elementary age, which is very trusting; they are going to believe people.”

Pointing to the recent John Couey trial and the Jessica Lunsford Act signed into law in Florida in 2005, Gibbs said parents live in a world in which they are naturally protective of their children’s environment. And Key Largo, because of its location in the Florida Keys, has a lot of transient traffic, he said.

“What the school did is what any responsible school should do if you have concern, if anything is putting a safety risk to your children — you don’t take matters into your own hands, you call the appropriate authorities,” Gibbs said. “The police are now called to an elementary school and their number one concern is to resolve the situation; they are not coming out hoping to arrest anyone or to do anything, but they have to make judgment calls.”

Gibbs said the situation may have been resolved without arrests if Simpson and Mirto had simply obeyed the police order to move.

“From a standpoint of the police, any time the police give a directive, even if you are in the most protected zone in the world, you still want to obey the police, and I think that is an appropriate Christian response,” Gibbs said. “A misinformed police officer still has the authority of the government behind his directive. You may not have been speeding, but if the police says, ‘Pull over,’ you pull over.

“When a police officer says, ‘Will you please leave,’ the answer is ‘Yes, I will leave.’ You should not be fighting for your inch of turf or your ground at that point,” Gibbs continued. “Obviously these men are now criminally charged. If they are convicted by a judge or a jury they will have a criminal record in addition to what I understand may already be a criminal record for at least one of those arrested.”

Even a “wrong” police officer is owed respect, Gibbs maintained. “Now does that mean then that you don’t stand up for your rights? No, but there are appropriate ways to handle it and arguing with a police officer, trying to get a police officer’s superior on the phone, trying to e-mail back and forth with whomever is raising a risk factor.”

In addition to creating a crisis, people who argue with the police are not “creating effective ministry,” Gibbs said.

The perspective that the men were deprived of their constitutional rights is debatable, Gibbs said, recognizing free speech rights are limited to what the law calls reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.

“Outside of public schools there is always this universal debate at what point is a free speech zone,” Gibbs said. “While the men may have been standing in a public place, if mothers from the school want to walk down that sidewalk and talk to these men, that may not be a problem. But if they are using the public sidewalk to entice children or yelling at children or people in cars on the school property, that can become a security issue for the school.”

Recognizing the Gideons were passing out Bibles and crediting Simpson and Mirto with “good intentions of trying to get the Gospel out,” Gibbs said this particular case should not be a concern for Christians because of a lack of “prudence” in how this matter escalated to the point of arrest. Generally these situations are pled out, Gibbs said, or a prosecutor may drop the charges.

“If we expand free speech and eliminate what has always been that reasonable time, place and manner outside an elementary school, could child molesters fresh out of prison hand out literature saying to them child molestation isn’t a problem? Could homosexuals be standing out there encouraging elementary-age children to experiment with their lifestyle? Could Muslims be handing out literature on how to build bombs and blow yourself up as a terrorist?” Gibbs asked rhetorically.

“I realize those are extreme examples, but I think we want to be careful that we don’t establish a free speech zone around every school where every elementary age school child could be exposed to things that could be potentially harmful,” Gibbs continued.

Curious about why the Gideons apparently are not supporting the efforts of the men in their defense, Gibbs said as a rule the Gideons encourage cooperation with school officials. “Sitting down with a principal and saying, ‘Here’s who we are, here’s the organization we are with, here’s what we are doing, is there any concern?’ I think could have eliminated even the initial call to the police,” Gibbs said. “And so I think as we look at this case, I don’t see this necessarily as a huge attack on Christian free speech.

“I think we, as Christians, need to be careful and pick our battles,” Gibbs concluded. “Clearly doing anything to create a potential safety risk for children is not advancing the cause of Christ.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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