The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I think everyone would agree the summer of 2020 has been the summer of protests.
I have lived in Franklin, serving as a local church pastor, for more than 30 years. Over the years I have been involved in my share of gatherings, marches and protests in our beautiful city. However, I must say, there have been more protests in Franklin over the last four months than in the previous 30 years combined; or at least it seems that way.
All of the protests in our city have been peaceful. In fact, across our country, between May 26 and Aug. 22, there were almost 8,000 protests. According to a study by The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, 93% of all protests have been peaceful. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are at the very heart of living in a representative republic; and, at times, democracy can look messy.
I think peaceful protesting is good. It means citizens are engaged in the issues, deeply care about their communities, and rightly want their voices heard. What should worry us is if, in the middle of injustices and social unrest, no one protested. That would mean people are either apathetic, uncaring or oppressed.
Protests encourage us to do better and be better. Protests challenge us, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, to “live out the true meaning of [our] creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’”
The Bible says, “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy”(Proverbs 31:9). As a Protestant, protest is in my name.
Not only are peaceful protests good, they are also protected by our First Amendment. It is for this reason I feel our city leaders are going down the wrong path in passing an ordinance that would require groups of 20 or more people to get a permit to protest. Simply put: A permit to protest violates the First Amendment.
In reality, getting a permit to protest turns the protest into a parade. Citizens need to be free to peacefully gather in any number, at any time, and in any public space, to let their voices and concerns be heard. There is no justifiable reason to require a person or people to go through a permitting process to do what the First Amendment says is their right to do. Adding the step of obtaining a permit will discourage and stifle freedom of speech. That may not be the intention of the ordinance, but it will be the result. There simply is no need for this extra step and extra burden.
There are two parts to the First Amendment. One part protects freedom of speech, which includes freedom of the press. The other part protects freedom of religion. Any attempt to regulate one part, by its very nature, regulates the other part. Right now, a few times a week, there are groups of 20 or more people who gather on the square for prayer. If passed, will this ordinance require those groups of 20 or more to get a permit to pray? If not, why not? After all, prayer can be a form of protest.
The proposed ordinance states favoritism will not be shown to groups of people based on messaging. In order to be consistent, every group of 20 or more people gathered in a public space will be required to get a permit. There is no way around it. To require a permit for a group wanting to protest against racism and police brutality or a group seeking seeking to protest for law enforcement and supportive of MAGA, but not require a permit for a group of 20 or more religious citizens gathered to pray, is showing favoritism based on messaging.
It should go without saying, I am pro-prayer. I support those who gather in a public place to pray. I have been on the square for both protesting and prayer. I have prayed at protests, and I have protested at prayer. Neither should require a permit. Both praying and protesting are protected by the First Amendment.
I appreciate the concerns of our city leaders. I appreciate the efforts they took to meet with me, and others, to listen to our concerns. They were even gracious enough to take our input and change some of the wording in the ordinance.
I am confident our city leaders are good and noble people. I know they are trying to do the right thing. Their hearts are in the right place. I believe them when they say their intentions with this ordinance are public safety and protection of free speech.
Regardless of their intentions, requiring a permit to protest violates the First Amendment.
Dr. Kevin Riggs is pastor at Franklin Community Church. He can be reached at [email protected].