Two First Amendment experts say the city of Colorado Springs is wrong to ban "Jesus" from Mountain Metro Transit bus benches after the city informed Charis Christian Center it no longer would allow the use of "Jesus" in advertising.
Later, when challenged, the city indicated transit staff was initiating a "careful review" of its policies and on Monday capitulated, saying the Jesus message would be allowed to continue pending that review.
"Whatever attorney is advising the Mountain Metro Transit people really should get a refresher course in the First Amendment," Mark Silverstein with the ACLU of Colorado says in an interview before the city switched gears.
At issue are roughly 30 bus benches across the city on which Charis paid to use the name Jesus. Signs have said "Celebrate JESUS," "Experience JESUS" and, most recently, "JESUS is Lord."
Charis pastor Lawson Perdue tells the Independent the city told him the ads wouldn't be permitted any longer because, by allowing the reference to Jesus, the city would also have to allow hate messages. He had contacted the city to renew Charis' current ad contract, which expires after June 30.
"They had one complaint," he says, "and because of one complaint, they said they're not going to allow me to use the name of Jesus in my advertising anymore. They told me I could advertise my church but not the name of Jesus."
Perdue says he contacted four City Council members, all of whom he says were "horrified" by the exclusion.
He says he's confident Charis could win a lawsuit, if it comes to that.
Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, N.M., who leads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, shares that optimism. The MRFF works toward removing the influence of religion in military ranks, and while Weinstein often finds himself fighting against fundamentalist Christians like Charis' leaders, who he says want to impose their religion through the military chain of command, in this case, he stands with Perdue and his church on principle.
The Jesus messages, says Weinstein, an attorney, are protected speech by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.
"I don't like that at all," Weinstein says of the ban. "I think that's wrong. To me, this is a violation of their First Amendment rights. We would caution the city of Colorado Springs to prepare for a lawsuit. I don't think this is one they're going to win."
The danger, he adds, is if you silence one faction of public expression, "where do you draw the line?"
From the ACLU perspective, Silverstein is baffled by the city's reasoning that the word Jesus isn't allowed but the church itself can advertise on city bus benches. "I don't understand what they're saying," he says. "I don't understand why an ad for a church is OK but saying Jesus is over the line. It makes no sense to me."
Perdue notes that he disagrees with some signs' messages, "but I'm not complaining," he says. Regarding the city's banning Jesus, he adds, "It's just crazy. That's why our nation was founded."
Charis Christian Center, located at 720 Elkton Drive and opened in 2001, is affiliated with Andrew Wommack Ministries. Perdue preaches at the church and also teaches at Charis Bible College, which moved to a 157-acre compound on the west side of Woodland Park several years ago from Colorado Springs. Wommack serves as president of the college and has an international following of his syndicated television program.
Charis has 49 faculty, staff and adjunct faculty, its website says.
Wommack himself inspires either loyal allegiance or suspicious resentment for his views on gays (he doesn't approve) and miracles (he claims to have benefited from them and performed them himself). He's claimed he raised his son from the dead in a small town in southeast Colorado, and another time prayed over his car, which had run out of gas in Oklahoma, and then drove it for a week without refueling.
Regardless, the ministry enjoys constitutional protection of its use of the word Jesus in advertising, both Weinstein and Silverstein agree.
For its part, Mountain Metro issued a statement on Friday, after the Indy reported the controversy first on its blog, saying it was working with the City Attorney's Office on the issue.
On Monday, it issued another statement, saying, "Mountain Metro Transit recognizes that it acted hastily in asking Pastor Perdue to change his messaging. The city attorney's office is working diligently to ensure that the advertising policies comply with the law. During this review, no action will be taken and Mountain Metro Transit will continue Pastor Perdue's advertisement as they currently appear."
The statement also notes, "The City takes First Amendment issues very seriously.... [which] requires that advertisements and policies are regularly reviewed for content and legality."