- Associated Press - Friday, December 26, 2014

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union is taking the side of Christian evangelists in a First Amendment case at a federal appeals court, despite what it calls “hate-filled speech” directed at Muslims at a Detroit-area street festival.

Members of a group called Bible Believers were pelted with rocks while carrying a pig’s head and telling Dearborn Muslims they would “burn in hell.” Wayne County sheriff’s deputies told the evangelists to leave the 2012 event or be ticketed.

An appeals court ruled in August, in a 2-1 decision, that group members’ First Amendment rights weren’t violated. But the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that decision in October and said it would hear the case again.

The ACLU’s Michigan branch filed a brief in support of Bible Believers on Dec. 12.

“By ordering the Bible Believers to leave the festival or else be cited for disorderly conduct, (deputies) violated the Bible Believers’ free speech rights under the First Amendment,” the ACLU argued. When “even offensive speech takes place in a public forum, police must take reasonable steps to protect speakers faced with a violent audience.”

Nabih Ayad, an attorney for the sheriff’s department and chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League, is disappointed with the ACLU’s stance.

“I understand the First Amendment and I’m for free speech, but when a riot is about to break out, free speech must take a back seat to public safety,” Ayad told the Detroit Free Press (http://on.freep.com/1EoEdsk ).

A date for arguments at the Cincinnati-based appeals court hasn’t been set.

Rana Elmir, ACLU of Michigan’s deputy director, said her group finds “the Bible Believers’ hate-filled speech and tactics vile and offensive.” Nonetheless, she said, the evangelists must be defended.

“Censorship is never the answer,” Elmir said.

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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