Pastor, elder acquitted after Bible reading at DMV

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MURRIETA, Calif. — Two men who were arrested and charged with unlawful protest while reading the Bible in front of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Hemet, Calif. have been acquitted.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer found Pastor Bret Coronado and elder Mark Mackey, both of Reconciled Christian Fellowship in Hemet, Calif., not guilty.

The men, part of an evangelism team that had been conducting ongoing visits to the state office to read Scripture, were arrested on Feb. 2, 2011 after DMV officials called the California Highway Patrol, whose jurisdiction includes state-owned property.

The arresting officers alleged the men were preaching to a captive office and did not have a permit to demonstrate. Video of the episode showed the men calmly reading the Bible in the parking lot, yards away from customers who were waiting in line.

The judge issued his August 13 ruling in the trial immediately after the prosecution rested its case. Defense attorney Robert Tyler of Advocates for Faith & Freedom said he intended to ask the judge to dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence before presenting his defense when Freer declared the pair "not guilty."

"The prosecution failed to meet its burden of proof that our clients committed a crime when they read the Bible aloud in front a line of people," Tyler said.

Prosecutors alleged the evangelism outreach amounted to a gathering, which required a state-issued permit. But in issuing his decision, Freer ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the men conducted either a "demonstration or gathering," as required by state law. Both definitions require that the conduct of defendants was such that it had "the effect, intent or propensity to draw a crowd or onlookers" and the prosecution couldn't prove that to be the case," Tyler said.

"These men were exercising their First Amendment right of Free Speech," said Nic Cocis, a defense attorney and co-counsel. "They were simply sharing their faith on public property, and the criminal charges should never have been filed."

Tyler said the decision not only vindicated his clients, but it also calls into question the legality of the statute governing the required permits.

"We were very pleased because Judge Freer also agreed that the law was unconstitutional because it gives too much unfettered discretion to law enforcement in determining whether someone's speech or other expressive activity has the effect, intent or propensity to draw a crowd or onlookers," Tyler said.

"Although Judge Freer's final verdict did not include a finding on constitutionality, his comments certainly vindicate our argument that the law is unconstitutional."

The prosecution maintains, however, that the judge erred in his analysis of the law, and the department is investigating a possible appeal, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In the meantime, Tyler said his clients are still pursuing a separate federal civil suit for unlawful arrest against the CHP. That case was put on hold until the outcome of the recent criminal case.