The Bible Believers v. Wayne County et al. decision of the Sixth Circuit Court
Questions and Answers with Professor and Attorney Ihsan Alkhatib*
On October 28, 2015, the Sixth Circuit Court decided on the appeal for a re-hearing of Bible Believers v. Wayne County et al. The Court decided for the Bible Believers delivering a decision and an opinion that legal scholars considered a significant development in First Amendment jurisprudence. The Bible Believers is a group of evangelical street preachers who used inflammatory tactics and rhetoric to spread their religious message during the Arab American Festival in 2012. The Forum and Link interviewed Professor Ihsan Alkhatib, assistant professor of Political Science at Murray State University in Kentucky with questions regarding the significance of the decision and its implications.
Forum and Link: What do you think of this decision? Were you surprised?
Professor Ihsan Alkhatib: It is a significant First Amendment decision that has been covered by the national media and has caught the attention of First Amendment legal scholars. I was surprised by the decision. The County won at the district court level winning a summary judgment. The Bible Believers appealed and lost. Then they requested that the full court hear the case. At this third bite of the apple, the Bible Believers won and in effect new First Amendment law was made.
F & L: Who are the Bible Believers?
I.A.: The Bible Believers is a street preaching group led by Reuven Israel. I have listened to and watched hours of Reuven and his fellow street preachers spreading their religious message based on their understanding of the Bible and the Christian tradition. It’s not the prosperity Bible of Joel Osteen where you hear an uplifting message. The style of the Bible Believers, an evangelical group, is a fire and brimstone kind of preaching, loud and in your face. They believe that by yelling their message, that if you do not believe in Jesus the way we do then you are going to hell. They believe that by using inflammatory and theatrical tactics, they will be effective preachers of the Gospel. That the hard approach would receive attention. Indeed, their tactics are successful and they have a winning strategy given the goals they set for themselves. They get the attention of the public- it’s a high intensity drama. Had they been peaceful evangelists handing out New Testaments with a smile, their preaching would have been uneventful. They are right about that- they are hard to ignore.
F & L: Why did they choose to target and ruin the Arab American Festival? Are they Islamophobes?
I.A.: They chose the event because it is in Dearborn and it is probably the biggest Arab American festival in the nation. The fact that Dearborn is identified with its visible Arab demographic presence is a blessing and a curse. The curse is that it inevitably attracts the likes of Bible Believers. As to hate, they do hate Islam and its Prophet but it’s not only Islam that they mock and hate- Muslims have good company. They try to evangelize the Jews, the Catholics, the Hare Krishna and the Buddhists because they deem their religions false religions and because Jesus is the only way to achieve salvation. They travel around the country preaching their Christian religious message in a harsh and inflammatory language. Even the Court described them as intolerant, offensive and anti- Islamic. It is important to note that it is not only Islam they are against, their preaching is mainly targeted at lapsed Christians and the Christian Catholics whom they consider to be idol worshippers.
F & L: Why was the Court unsympathetic to the Arab and Muslim American community? How could they decide in favor of such a group?
I.A. When a case goes beyond the trial level, the issue becomes bigger than the parties that are named in the caption. Here the case goes to the core of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. When the Sixth Circuit makes the decision, given that we live in a common law system and not a civil law system like Lebanon has, it is the Court making First Amendment law for Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Therefore, their decision is chiefly concerned with the Constitution and the implications of their decision as the law of the jurisdiction. The decision cannot be fairly or realistically understood as the Sixth Circuit choosing an intolerant group over Wayne County sheriffs and the Arab American and Muslim American communities. That is not the case at all.
F & L: What did the Court say? Why did they rule for the Bible Believers?
I.A. They basically said that despite the fact that the group was intolerant the Wayne County sheriffs had an obligation to protect them from an angry audience if that could be reasonably done. The Court was not happy that the sheriffs did not make an effort to stop the youths in the audience from throwing empty bottles and garbage at the Bible Believers. They thought that the sheriffs could and should have stopped the youths from attacking the group and that they should have allowed them to continue to spread their religious message, a message that despite its being intolerant, was protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.
F & L: Could the Festival organizers have banned the Bible Believers from the event?
I.A.: As long as they were peaceful, even if they were saying offensive things, and just exercising their constitutional rights, they couldn’t. The event is considered an “open forum” and they had the right to be there to preach their religious message no matter how obnoxious or unpopular it is or, no matter how “vile” and “offensive” it is as the Court put it.
F & L: Could the County have done anything different as to their legal strategy?
I.A.: It is a clear fact that there was some ambiguity as to the law in situations where you have an unpopular speaker, an angry audience and the nature of the obligations of law enforcement. Judge Griffin admitted that in his concurrence stating that “the right at issue was not clearly established at the time of the 2012 Arab International Festival.” I think that Corporation Counsel Zenna El Hassan did her job very well. I think that attorney Nabih Ayad who represented the County and the other defendants/appellees did a great job- he won twice before he lost the third time. The only reason he lost is that the Circuit Court decided to make new law. The case is going to be sent back to the trial judge to set damages. I hope the trial judge takes the fact that the law was not clear at the time in his assessing of damages against the County and the other defendants. The County’s money is taxpayer money and the law was not clear at the time. Now it is.
F & L: What are the implications for the Arab American community in Detroit?
I.A. I am almost certain that intolerant groups will continue to target the Dearborn community and its events, the community just needs to learn to live with that reality and ignore them- we have to teach our kids to do that. With this guidance from the Court, law enforcement now has a better idea of what is expected from them. I hope that the Festival tradition can be resurrected. Also, the Arab and Muslim American community, a community that regularly engages in demonstrations and protests and often has unpopular political messages as to US foreign policy, benefits from any strengthening of First Amendment rights.
*Interview will appear in the Forum and Link of 11/5/2015.
The Sixth Circuit Court decision:
Bible Believers videos on Youtube:
Bible Believers in Dearborn: