LOST LIBERTIES: Paying the Price for Free Speech


(The man involved in this case, Darrell Rundus, is loosely affiliated with Living Waters Ministries, and is the guy who got his Million-dollar bill Gospel tracts seized last June by the Treasury Dept.)

A federal court in Texas has ruled that Christians are allowed to share their faith on the grounds of the Texas State Fair, but if they want to hand out tracts, they’ll have to buy that right.

U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle Wednesday signed the ruling that confirms Darrell Rundus null and his Great News Network are “free to spread the gospel and distribute religious tracts on the public sidewalks outside Fair Park. Moreover, within Fair Park he may continue to orally share his beliefs with fairgoers.”

However, the ruling also said, “Rundus may still distribute religious literature at the Fair provided that he pays the required fee and confines his activities to the allotted exhibit space.”

The Mississippi-based American Family Association Center for Law and Policy worked on the case, and attorneys Brian Fahling and Bruce Green attempted to secure an agreement from the City of Dallas that its officers would not interfere, as they did a year earlier, with Rundus as “he exercised his First Amendment right to share his faith with fairgoers outside and inside the Texas State Fair.”

The city’s response was that since it leases the property to the separate organization, State Fair of Texas, Inc., each year, the fair actually is a private event on private property and Rundus and others “had no constitutional rights inside the fair grounds.”

“In its ruling yesterday the federal court determined that the Texas State Fair is a public place where constitutional rights are protected; as a result of the ruling, Mr. Rundus and others are now free to share their faith inside the fair grounds,” the law firm said.

The court’s “Memorandum Order” actually denied Rundus’ request to be allowed to hand out tracts within the fair, but affirmed the other opportunities.

A year ago, Dallas police officers had ordered Rundus, on threat of arrest, to not hand out tracts on the grounds of the “private” event, the fair. He then moved to the sidewalks in front of the fair but also was ordered by police to leave that location.

The fair, in a statement, said there wasn’t any opposition to Rundus’ religious message. But the fair said it couldn’t allow a general proselytizing on its grounds without compensation.

“Many religious organizations participate in the fair each year by renting exhibit space from which they can give away or sell items and conduct other activities. Current participants include the Amazing Grace Mission, Christian Educational Services, Church of Scientology, Fair & Rodeo Evangelism and Full Gospel Businessmen’s Association,” said the fair.

Fair spokesman David Margulies said the fair “made every effort to work with Mr. Rundus in the same manner it has worked with religious organizations for many years. Our goal is always to continue to provide a safe, pleasant, family oriented venue for our valued guests and we are pleased that today’s ruling will assist us in those efforts.”

He told WND that one cannot “come onto the fairgrounds and conduct your business without becoming a vendor,” for prices as low as $4,500.

Rundus told WND that the U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled that handing out information, such as a Gospel tract, is just an extension of free speech, and it also has been ruled that state fairs are limited public forums, in which free speech is a right.

“Basically they’re charging people to exercise free speech,” he noted. “That doesn’t sound very free.”

He said the request would go next to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, from which GNN would seek a ruling that the fair is a limited public forum, with free speech rights, and he plans to be handing out Gospel tracts there next year.

Great News Network describes itself as an assembly of Christians whose goal is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“GNN is a unique interdenominational, non-profit ministry. To put it simply, we’re just Christians who endeavor to do what Jesus did; the will of the Father. That means our primary function is to sow the seed of the Gospel so that people may be saved from Hell,” the organization says on its website. “You could say that GNN is a place where an army of Christian soldiers has been assembled to faithfully proclaim the Great News each and every day.”

Fahling and Green said there would be an appeal. “The fee requirement is an unconstitutional license tax on the exercise of First Amendment Rights,” said the CLP, which is a public interest law firm specializing in First Amendment litigation.

“Since the Fair is obviously at the very least a limited public forum, we feel as if it is unconstitutional to require a non-profit religious organization to pay thousands of dollars just to exercise their right to express their religious beliefs in a public forum,” Rundus told WND.

The dispute is not the first time GNN has been in the position of seeking equity from a court. Last summer the U.S. Secret Service confiscated about 8,300 tracts created to look similar to currency, only carrying a dollar amount of $1 million, from the Denton, Texas-based GNN and District Judge Jorge A. Solis of Dallas ruled they should be considered counterfeit money.

In that case, now also on appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Fahling said the statutes used to make that determination were inapplicable because there is no such thing as a real $1 million bill, so how can there be a counterfeit of something that doesn’t exist?

The tracts are produced by evangelist Ray Comfort, whose Living Waters Ministry in Southern California has been inundated with requests for them since the story broke.

As WND reported, the controversy began June 2 when three agents visited GNN and demanded the tracts, telling the group someone had tried to deposit one in a bank account.

October 13, 2006
By Bob Unruh
© 2006

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.