HEMET, Calif. An evangelism pastor from a Southern California church and two of its members have filed a federal civil rights suit against a California Highway Patrol officer after he arrested one of them for reading the Bible outside a DMV office. The two others were later arrested for trespassing.
Jennifer Monk, associate general counsel with Murietta-based Advocates for Faith and Freedom, filed the suit April 25 in U.S. District Court, alleging free speech violations and unlawful arrest. She represents Mark Mackey, a member of Calvary Chapel Hemet, who was reading from Romans 1 when he was arrested Feb. 2. The other two plaintiffs, assistant Pastor Brett Coronado and Ed Flores Jr., were later arrested after asking what laws were broken to merit Mackey's arrest.
The entire incident was videotaped, and on April 21 it was posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 66,000 times.
The video shows Mackey standing in the parking lot a few feet from the sidewalks surrounding the entrance to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The audio picks up the idle chatter of those waiting in line. According to the 13-page complaint, the trio began sharing the gospel at 8:10 a.m. nearly an hour before the DMV opened.
Mackey read from the Bible for a moment or two when he was approached by a security guard, who told him, "You need to go somewhere else." Mackey said he was going to continue to read. The security guard walked away. At that point, the video is clearly edited for time, but resumes with Mackey still reading from the Bible as a CHP unit arrives in the background. According to the complaint, officer Damen Meyer arrived about 15 minutes after the guard confronted Mackey. In the distance, the officer can be seen talking briefly with the security guard before he approaches Mackey from across the parking lot.
Just don't preach
When he gets to Mackey he abruptly tells the street evangelist, "You give him the book," as the officer takes the Bible from his hand and gives it to Flores who was standing next to Mackey. "You're under arrest."
With Mackey's hands cuffed behind his back, Meyer begins removing personal property from his pockets. Laughter from the DMV clients can be heard in the background.
When asked why he was being arrested, Meyer responded, "You've been asked to leave. You didn't."
Later he told Mackey, "You're not allowed to preach here because this is a captive audience."
After placing Mackey in the back of the squad car he turned to Flores and Coronado, who was taping part of the exchange.
"I'm giving you the option, you can leave," the officer told them.
"Are we breaking the law?" Coronado asked.
"You are if you preach," Meyer responded, prompting Coronado to ask, "For preaching? What law is that?"
Ignoring the question, the officer says, "I'm going to ask you one more time," before turning to the guard and asking if the pair had been preaching. When the guard said no, he got in car, ignoring Coronado's repeated requests to find out which law was being violated. The YouTube posting ends, but off camera, Coronado and Flores are arrested a few minutes later by back-up officers, the complaint said.
Handcuffed to a table
All three were taken to the CHP offices where they were handcuffed to a table for about 90 minutes. They were cited for "impeding an open business," although the facility was not open and the men were never closer than 50 feet of any entrance. A spokesman for the Hemet office told a local newspaper that the church members had been warned in the past that they needed a permit to preach on state property.
"This is an abuse of power on the part of the CHP," Monk said. "The arresting officer could find no appropriate penal code to use when arresting these men. The purpose of the arrests appears to have been to censor them."
At the time of the lawsuit's filing, the district attorney's office had yet to pursue any charges against the men.
In the video's introduction, Coronado, the church's evangelism pastor, said the entire episode was surreal.
"Its almost seems like it's unreal, that it was staged, but it wasn't," he said. "It's unbelievable that something like this could happen in America today."
Coronado said church members routinely share the gospel in public places around Hemet, such as parks and the courthouse. The DMV, he said, seemed like another effective locale.
"We've driven by there many times and seen all the people that congregate there, waiting for the DMV to open every day of the week," Coronado said on the video. "We saw it as an opportunity to share the Scriptures with them."
Robert Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, said the ability to share one's religious believes is paramount to the American way.
"Whether this was an intentional violation of our clients' constitutional liberty or whether this was an act of ignorance on the part of the CHP, this lawsuit is important in order to preserve the liberty to read the Bible aloud on public property without fear of criminal prosecution," the attorney said.
The video may be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FruQO8qaw9c