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Judge reopens part of Arab fest evangelism case

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A federal judge has reopened the First Amendment case of Christian evangelists who were kicked out of an Arab-American street festival in Dearborn, saying the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “erred” in part of its ruling.

Members of the group Bible Believers were escorted out of the Arab International Festival in 2012 by police after carrying a pig’s head, telling local Muslims they would “burn in hell, and carrying banners that said “Islam Is A Religion of Blood and Murder.”

The group sued Wayne County and two members of the county sheriff’s department who threatened them with arrest and forced them to leave the festival, saying the evangelists’ First Amendment rights were violated.

On Oct. 28, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said Bible Believers should have been protected even though its speech was loathsome and intolerant. The appeal court ruled in the group’s favor and ordered damages be awarded.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen J. Murphy III said the appeal court ruling “contains a clear factual error,” specifically the finding that law enforcement spoke with the county’s legal department immediately before escorting the Bible Believers out of the festival.

Murphy said that finding is unsupported by the record and has ordered that Bible Believers and Wayne County return to court to file motions on the issue of the county’s municipal liability.

Murphy’s order does not affect the portion of the appeals court decision that found Bible Believers’ First Amendment rights were violated and that members should be awarded damages by defendants Dennis Richardson and Mike Jaafar, who were both deputy chiefs with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office at the time.

Nabih H. Ayad, who represents Wayne County, said the judge was “absolutely correct and courageous” in making the decision to reopen the issue of municipal liability.

Ayad said Wayne County’s corporation counsel did not give the police direction or permission to kick out the group, making the county not liable for damages.

“This is such an important decision for law enforcement liability,” he said.

Richardson retired from the sheriff’s office in 2014. Jaafar is still a deputy sheriff. Ayad said he plans to appeal the portion of the ruling against the officers.

Robert J. Muise, with the American Freedom Law Center in Ann Arbor, which is representing Bible Believers, said the judge’s decision does not change the constitutional violation or the underlying decision.

“We still prevailed in the case. He is going to open the case back up and have us refile motions just on the question of municipality liability,” Muise said.

In 2012, Bible Believers members were pelted with rocks during the Arab International Festival and Wayne County authorities threatened to ticket the evangelists, citing safety concerns.

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

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