A Tennessee grandfather is hitting back after coming under fire from local authorities because he read the Bible on a public sidewalk without the city's permission.
On November 15, First Liberty and the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) sent a demand letter to the City of Sweetwater, Tennessee on behalf of Paul Johnson urging officials to stop using a twenty-five year old city ordinance to prohibit Johnson from reading the Bible on a public sidewalk without a permit, according to a press release sent to The Gospel Herald.
"Mr. Johnson does not need permission from the government to express his faith in public," said Chelsey Youman, Counsel for First Liberty. "The First Amendment is permission enough for any citizen in any city in America to peacefully read the Bible out loud on a public sidewalk. The Sweetwater ordinance is overbroad, unconstitutional, and must be immediately changed or eliminated."
The controversy began in August 2017, when Johnson, who "has a heart for sharing God's word with people where he lives," traveled to the nearby town of Sweetwater, Tennessee, hoping to read his Bible on a public sidewalk during a festival celebrating the 2017 total solar eclipse.
However, upon his arrival, Johnson, a bus driver, was met with resistance from local authorities.
"Police officers informed Mr. Johnson that reading the Bible on a public sidewalk qualified as a 'demonstration' as defined by a twenty-five-year-old Sweetwater city ordinance and that he needed a permit from the city," notes First Liberty. "However, a local city official promptly denied Mr. Johnson's permit request, and Mr. Johnson was forced to leave Sweetwater without being able to publically read the Bible."
Johnson has previously read the Bible out loud without incident at many popular Tennessee events, including town festivals and University of Tennessee football games.
"I was shocked that a city had a law banning anyone from reading the Bible on a public sidewalk without their permission," said Johnson. "All I want to do is tell people about the love of Jesus by reading my Bible, but I was worried I might be arrested if I tried."
Arguing that Sweetwater has violated Johnson's constitutional rights, First Liberty and CRE are asking authorities to allow Johnson to publically read the Bible at future events and to apply its laws in a constitutional manner. If the city doesn't comply, it plans to pursue legal action.
"Every American has the right to share earnestly-held views in public," said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. "No one should need government permission to preach."