Preachers renew fight to sermonize at Duluth event

Published 9:34 am Monday, November 26, 2012

DULUTH — Two preachers in northern Minnesota are back in federal court, renewing allegations that the city of Duluth is violating their constitutional right by preventing them from preaching their Christian faith at an annual holiday event.

Steve Jankowski of Duluth and Peter Scott of Hibbing filed a motion in federal court this week asking a judge to order the city to let them into the Bentleyville Tour of Lights event.

City officials counter that the pair’s access can be restricted to a new “First Amendment zone” near a parking lot outside an entrance.

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The preachers’ fight with the city dates back to November 2010, when police escorted the pair out of the display after the men refused to stop preaching to people walking through the event. The preachers, backed by two legal defense groups, filed suit the following year saying the city had no right to keep them out because the park where the event is held is a public place.

A federal judge agreed with the preachers and issued a temporary injunction ordering the city to allow them into the event. But by the time the decision was handed down last December, Bentleyville was nearly closed for the season.

This year, city attorneys and lawyers for the foundation that runs Bentleyville amended the contract that allows the group to use the park. Duluth’s city attorneys filed court documents saying the new contract allows Bentleyville, as the event promoter, to dictate who is allowed inside.

The city has also filed its own motions asking that last year’s injunction be tossed because it dealt with a now-outdated contract.

“Because the old agreement has been replaced by a new agreement, the preliminary injunction, by its express terms, is now moot,” the city argued in a brief.

But Jonathan Scruggs, attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom that is representing the preachers, disagreed.

“Even if something had changed since the court (decision) last year, the city can’t unilaterally end the injunction,” Scruggs said.

The original lawsuit said Scott and another friend were at Bentleyville in 2010, and that Scott wore a sweatshirt with “Fear God. Hate Sin. Trust Jesus” on the front and “The Blood of Jesus Washes Away Sins” on the back. A police officer told them to stop preaching or leave the event, the lawsuit said.

The officer left the scene but when the two started preaching again they were confronted and threatened by Bentleyville staffers, the lawsuit said.