Last week, the full court of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed to rehear the case of Bible Believers v. Wayne County, which was brought by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) on behalf of several Christian evangelists who were violently attacked by a hostile Muslim mob while preaching at an Arab festival in Dearborn, Michigan. Video of the assault went viral on YouTube.
On August 27, a divided, three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit dismissed the civil rights lawsuit, finding that the violent response of the Muslim hecklers justified the Wayne County sheriffs’ order to the Christians that they would be arrested for disorderly conduct if they did not leave the festival area.
Circuit Judge Clay wrote a scathing dissent, stating,
“The majority’s first error is its conclusion that the First Amendment did not protect [the Christians’] speech. This is not only wrong, it is dangerously wrong.”
Judge Clay further stated that
“the First Amendment strongly counsels that we should not allow the state to criminalize speech on the grounds that it is blasphemous—even so blasphemous that the average adherent to the offended religion would react with violence.”
Within days of receiving the adverse ruling, AFLC filed a petition for rehearing en banc, requesting full court review. On October 23, the court granted the petition. The panel decision is now vacated, and the case will be reheard by the entire court (15 active circuit court judges). Oral argument is scheduled for March 4, 2015, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert J. Muise commented,
“This is great news for religious freedom and the freedom of speech. The panel’s decision rewards violence over protected speech and thus incorporates into the First Amendment what is known as a ‘heckler’s veto.’ We are confident that the full court will reverse this ‘dangerously wrong’ decision.”
The granting of a petition for rehearing en banc is very rare. As noted by the Sixth Circuit’s rules:
“A petition for rehearing en banc is an extraordinary procedure intended to bring to the attention of the entire court a precedent-setting error of exceptional public importance . . . .”
AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel David Yerushalmi added,
“Make no mistake about it: the First Amendment is under assault by both Muslim supremacists and Islamists on the one hand and progressives advocating ‘hate-speech’ crimes on the other. The result is a shrinking arena of free speech with government bureaucrats and cultural and civilizational jihadists dictating what is and is not acceptable speech. Maybe, just maybe, the Sixth Circuit has decided to draw the line in the sand to protect against any further encroachment upon the sphere of this First Amendment freedom.”