2 Gideons cited while on public property near Florida school
A Florida judge has dismissed all counts against two members of The Gideons
International who were arrested while handing out Bibles on a public
sidewalk outside a school, officials with the Alliance Defense
“Christians cannot be treated as second-class
citizens,” said ADF senior legal counsel David Cortman. “These two
men have the same constitutional rights as everyone else to pass out literature
on a public sidewalk.
“We are pleased that the court agrees that
these men should not have been arrested and dismissed the charges against
them,” he said.
case has been handled by the legal alliance, which defends the right to
hear and speak the truth through strategy, training, funding and litigation,
since shortly after Ernest Simpson and Anthony Mirto were arrested.
They had been charged with trespassing after the
principal complained that they were handing out Bibles.
The initial counts were dismissed at the request
of the ADF shortly after the law firm got involved, but then authorities filed
a second round of counts, under a different law that prohibits anyone from
being within 500 feet of any school property, including on public sidewalks and
streets, without having either “legitimate business” or permission.
“Why is Florida so interested in prosecuting
people who hand out Bibles?” the ADF had wondered at the time. “Does
the state now believe that its citizens will be safer if ‘protected’ from
Bibles? In a country founded on religious freedom, the actions of the State are
As WND originally
reported, Mirto and Simpson of Monroe County were arrested, charged with
trespassing, and booked into jail after the school principal, Annette
Martinson, called police.
They were verbally assaulted and badgered by the
arresting officer, according to court filings in the case, and sustained injury
to their wrists when he handcuffed them with their hands behind their backs and
detained them in a closed, un-air conditioned car for nearly an hour in
“The distribution of Bibles on a public
sidewalk is not a criminal offense,” Cortman said then. “The attempts
by Florida officials to continue pressing for the prosecution of Mr. Mirto and
Mr. Simpson is not only blatantly unconstitutional, it borders on religious
The incident Jan. 19 developed as the two men were
distributing Bibles outside Key
While the original trespassing counts were
unreasonable, the second round put the state of Florida in the “untenable
position of trying to justify the punishment of fundamental First Amendment
activities in a quintessential traditional public forum,” the ADF
On the face of the statute cited by the
prosecutor, people driving by the school on the highway technically are in
violation of the law, unless they have an exemption, and if the same exemption
doesn’t apply to the two members of Gideons International, then that creates a
content-based speech restriction, which also isn’t proper, Cortman said.
In fact, if anyone may have stepped beyond the
law, the filing suggests, it was the arresting officer from the
Monroe County sheriff’s office.
“There was no call for Officer [John] Perez’s
angry demeanor, his inappropriate handling of the situation, his abusive
treatment of the Gideons, his stopping and arresting them while they were in
the process of leaving, his unnecessary towing of the car (parked where many
other cars were parked), his handcuffing the men behind their backs, his
leaving them cramped in a hot car for nearly an hour (which should never be
done to animals, never mind to human beings), nor his mocking the Gideons’
religious beliefs stating ‘now you can pray to Jesus all the way to
jail,'” the ADF said.
In a statement at the outset of the case to WND,
Becky Herrin, of the public information office in the Monroe County sheriff’s
office, stated as a fact that the defendants in the case did trespass. She
later declined additional comment.
“A copy of our police report (see attached) …
clearly states that the people in question were arrested for trespassing on
school property– not on a public sidewalk… In fact, they were given the
opportunity to step off school property and onto public property, and they
could have continued with their activities if they had done so. They chose
instead to remain, against repeated warnings, on school property so deputies
were forced to arrest them,” Herrin said in a statement to WND.
But the report forwarded to WND revealed the two
were arrested while in their vehicle parked near, but not on, school property.
The Gideons, a group founded in the late 1800s,
has as its “sole purpose” the goal “to win men, women, boys and
girls to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ through association for
service, personal testimony, and distributing the Bible in the human traffic
lanes and streams of everyday life.”
Members of the Gideons, who pay their own expenses
so 100 percent of the donations to the group go toward Bible purchases and
distributions, have placed the Bible in 181 nations in 82 different languages
over the years.
The organization focuses on hotels and motels,
hospitals and nursing homes, schools, colleges and universities, the military
and law enforcement and prisons and jails.
“The demand for Scriptures in these areas far
exceeds our supplies that we are able to purchase through our donations. Much
more could be done – if funds were available. However, we are placing and
distributing more than 1 million copies of the Word of God, at no cost, every
seven days in these areas…” the group said.
The organization only gives away the Bibles with
the Gideon logo on the covers, but plain Bibles are available for consumers to
purchase at its distribution center at P.O. Box 140800, Nashville, Tenn.,
37214-0800. Information about the products is available on the group’s
The Gideons serve as an extended missionary arm of
the Christian church and are the oldest Christian business and professional
men’s association in the United States.