DEARBORN, Mich.?A civil lawsuit is likely on behalf of four people?including two Southern Baptists, one from Texas?who were arrested and later acquitted on charges of “breaching the peace” at an Arab festival in Dearborn, Mich.
Attorney Robert Muise of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the arrest and detainment of four self-described Christian missionaries on June 18 at Dearborn’s annual International Arab Festival were a clear infringement of their First and Fourth Amendment rights and a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
A Dearborn jury on Sept. 24 acquitted all four defendants?Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood, Negeen Mayel, and Paul Rezkalla. Mayel, who had an additional charge of failure to obey a police officer, was convicted of that charge. Muise said her case would be appealed and her conviction likely overturned.
Muise argued the arresting officer had no case for approaching the petite, 18-year-old Mayel, a Southern Baptist living in Texas, much less arresting her. Mayel and Qureshi, a former Southern Baptist youth pastor, are former Muslims. The four were working with a ministry founded by Qureshi and Wood, a former atheist, called Acts 17 Apologetics. The four were videotaping a dialogue between Qureshi and a group of young men about the claims of Christianity when Dearborn police arrested Qureshi (watch video at http://www.thomasmore.org/default-sb_thomasmore.html?761376103).
“We feel honesty is better than disguised language,” according to a statement on the Acts 17 Apologetics blog at answeringmuslims.com describing their evangelism methods.
Muise, senior trial counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, which specializes in defending religious liberty and civil rights, said his work with another case involving the Dearborn Arab festival has given him insight into what he calls overbearing event regulations established by Dearborn that stifle free speech, especially the Christian witness.
Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, is known as a center of Islamic culture in America.
As in years past, the festival included other Christian groups who were granted booths at the event, including Josh McDowell’s ministry. None reported problems with police, but those ministries apparently did not venture outside their booths to evangelize.
The Acts 17 group had no such booth, but they say their right to free speech in a public place was violated by their arrest and detainment.
Muise said that between 2004-2008, evangelical groups testified that the atmosphere at the festival “was very welcoming.” They were free to share the gospel and hand out literature on the sidewalks of the festival, which encompasses public buildings on several city blocks.
“They never had a problem. Then there was a regime change,” he said.
Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly Jr. hired the city’s first Arab American police chief, Ronald Haddad, in 2008. Another Dearborn police officer was put in charge of security oversight for the festival.
Muise said Haddad, with the sergeant in charge of security and a community liaison for the festival, developed the highly restrictive criteria for the festival, even creating a “buffer zone” reached as far as five blocks from the festival entrance. The sidewalks are no longer considered public domain by festival guidelines.
The new guidelines stymied the dissemination of Christian material in or near the festival, Muise maintains. Organizers argue that all festival participants are allowed to work from a booth within the festival, and five Christian organizations chose to do so but the defendants chose not to.
HISTORY OF RUN-INS
Qureshi and Wood are familiar with the festival and its regulations. They were among four people last year?including Mary Jo Sharp, a member of Nassau Bay Baptist Church in suburban Houston and a frequent speaker at events sponsored by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention?who were escorted out of the festival by police after Qureshi tried to engage a booth attendant in a videotaped dialogue about Islam.
By Sharp’s accounts, security guards aggressively tried to stop Sharp and another camera operator from filming and forced them to leave the festival grounds along with Wood and Qureshi. The security personnel allegedly slapped at the cameras and Qureshi said he and Wood were kicked and tripped as they backed away from the growing crowd of security workers and festival attendants.
Sharp did not return to the festival this year. After discussing it with her husband, she said they agreed it would be unwise. But Sharp was in Dearborn during the festival, hosting a live radio show for the Aramaic Broadcasting Network.
Sharp was sequestered during the Sept. 19-24 trial as a potential character witness for the defendants but was not called.
Mayel told the TEXAN in an e-mail: “The prosecutor painted us out to be racist against Muslims when the truth is two of us are ex-Muslims and we would have never gone to the Arab Festival had it not been for our deep love for Muslims.”
What their cameras recorded on June 18 was a series of rapid-fire questions for Qureshi from eight to 10 young men at the festival. Qureshi is seen taking questions from the inquisitive group, including one about when Jesus was first considered God. A bystander tells Qureshi Jesus wasn’t declared divine until 325 A.D., and Qureshi is heard responding that within the decade after the crucifixion Jesus is clearly regarded as divine. Qureshi is also heard telling the young men that Jesus has changed his life and that God loved them enough to send his son to die for them.
The tone of the conversation is tense but not threatening, contrary to the testimony of one of the arresting officers. Finally, the camera turns toward a Dearborn Police Officer who approaches Qureshi from behind and asks him to place his hands behind his back.
At this point Wood, Qureshi, and Rezkalla were arrested and charged with breach of peace. Mayel, who had been videotaping the encounter from a distance, was arrested prior to her cohorts. Muise said the arresting officer reported Qureshi had drawn “a riotous crowd of 50-60 people and was shouting.”
“They didn’t like the video and the video exonerated [my clients],” he said.
Muise argued that what occurred in Dearborn is the application of Islamic Shariah law by fiat. The fact that witnessing for Christ to Muslims in America is a criminal offense is disturbing, he said.
One of the first protective measures of First Amendment rights, Muise said, is the defense against “The Heckler’s Veto.” A speaker cannot be silenced by authorities for fear of how the audience will react to his words, Muise said.
In an open letter posted on the City of Dearborn website, the mayor said Acts 17 Apologetics came with the intention of being arrested in order to “inflame the passions of viewers who would be taken in by their misrepresentation of what was really going on.”
“People who would promote hatred and lies to get others to act in ways that are contrary to what America stands for are the real enemy for all lovers of our country,” O’Reilly continued. “History is full of horrific events that were manufactured by lies to get good people to act purely emotionally to achieve the deceivers’ ends.”
O’Reilly accused the group in a Detroit Free Press article of using the event as a tactic to raise money for their ministry.
Muise said he is looking at all documentation to build his case for a civil suit against the city of Dearborn.
“The bottom line in the jury’s not guilty verdict: the Constitution, not Shariah law, still prevails in Dearborn, Michigan,” wrote Richard Thompson, the Thomas More Law Center’s president and chief counsel.