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Christian evangelists who were kicked out of an Arab-American street festival in 2012 after carrying a pig’s head and telling Dearborn Muslims they would “burn in hell” won their federal appeal Monday and will be awarded damages.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, reaffirmed the boundaries of the First Amendment, saying the evangelist group Bible Believers should have been protected even though its speech was loathsome and intolerant. The opinion also highlighted the obligation of law enforcement and public officials when confronted with constitutionally protected speech that threatens to incite violence.

“Bearing in mind the interspersed surges of ethnic, racial, and religious conflict that from time to time mar our national history, the constitutional lessons to be learned from the circumstances of this case are both timeless and markedly seasonable,” Judge Eric Clay wrote.

The opinion by the full appeals court Wednesday overturned a lower-court judgment and sent the case back to federal court in Detroit, where a judge will calculate damages and other relief.

The case against Wayne County, Sheriff Benny Napoleon and members of the department, originally was handled in Detroit by U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan, who recently retired.

The court Wednesday concluded law enforcement personnel made “next to no attempt...to protect the Bible Believers or prevent the lawless actions of the audience.”

“We are reviewing the court’s opinion,” sheriff’s office spokeswoman Paula Bridges said in a statement Wednesday. “No decision has been made as to what next steps, if any, will be taken therefore we will refrain from comment at this time.”

The full court agreed one year ago to reconsider the case after setting aside a 2-1 decision by a three-judge panel in August 2014.

In that opinion, the panel said sheriff’s deputies didn’t violate the evangelists’ free speech rights

Such rehearings are rare.

In 2012, Bible Believers were pelted with rocks during the Arab International Festival and Wayne County authorities threatened to ticket the evangelists because they were concerned about safety.

The festival was a popular event in Dearborn, which has one of the largest populations of Arab Americans in the country.

During the 2012 event, Bible Believers members engaged in street preaching, carrying signs and wearing shirts with messages that included: “Islam Is A Religion of Blood and Murder,” “Turn or Burn” and “Jesus Is the Way, the Truth and the Life. All Others Are Thieves and Robbers.”

One member carried a severed pig’s head on a spike, believing the display would keep the Muslims at bay, according to court records.

People in the crowd reacted by throwing bottles and other items at the members.

A Wayne County Sheriff’s Office deputy chief threatened to ticket the group’s members if they did not immediately leave the festival. The group’s leader complied and members were escorted out of the festival.

Appeals Judge John Rogers dissented Wednesday, saying the opinion hurts Arab-Americans’ right to express their culture.

“Realistically viewed, the Bible Believers were hecklers seeking to disrupt the cultural fair,” Rogers wrote. “The police visibly attempted to reconcile the First Amendment rights of festivalgoers and the Bible Believers. There may have been much better ways for the police to handle this situation, but there was no First Amendment violation.”

rsnell@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2028

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