Street preacher wins free speech case

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jesse Morrell, a 24-year-old with a ministry of traveling to college campuses to preach the Gospel, has won a settlement with the city of New Haven, Conn., to resume calling students to repentance on the streets near Yale University.

In 2004, when Morrell was still a teenager, he tried to express his faith vocally at four different locations on public streets outside nightclubs in New Haven. Each time, police officers warned him he would be arrested if he continued, and one even ripped the wire from his tape recorder after he informed the officer that he was documenting the confrontation.

The officers told Morrell that club patrons had complained about his preaching and said his speech was "annoying," thereby violating the local noise ordinance. In 2005, Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against the New Haven police, citing the First Amendment.

"Christians shouldn't be penalized for expressing their beliefs," Jonathan Scruggs of ADF said. "Police cannot silence citizens because they or others think their message is 'annoying.' All Americans are free to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to free speech on a public sidewalk. Those rights must be protected, or we're all in trouble."

On Aug. 17, the city of New Haven agreed to a consent order that will allow Morrell to share his faith on the sidewalk without fear of harassment or arrest.

Alan Sears, also of ADF, noted that regardless of whether people approve of the style or message Morrell employs, he has the right to speak.

"Not even all Christians feel comfortable with some of those who proclaim the Gospel in public places, but the right to speak openly about our faith is more important than personalities or personal preferences and comfort zones," Sears wrote in an Aug. 25 ADF news release.

Morrell, whose ministry is called Open Air Outreach, travels the country sharing the Gospel through tracts and Bible distribution as well as personal conversations and open air preaching. Some describe his message as edgy because he specifically calls homosexuals, drunkards, pornographers and others to repentance.

His own testimony includes a history of drug use, drug trafficking and larceny — all before he was 16. It was during rehabilitation as a 15-year-old that he heard the Gospel message and accepted Christ as his Savior, committing his life to helping others find freedom.

A YouTube video shows Morrell preaching near the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, where a student holding an open Bible asks him to read Matthew 7:1-5. Morrell quotes the passage and then asks the gathered students if they know what it means.

"It means hypocrites cannot judge," Morrell said. "If you have a log in your eye, you cannot judge. So like I said, if I was out getting wasted and smashed, I can't judge you guys for getting wasted and smashed because I have a log in my own eye. But since Jesus took the log out of my eye, I can see clearly to help remove the speck that's in your own."

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