If you’re reciting scripture on a city sidewalk and someone complains, are you breaking the law?
That appears to be the case in Grand Rapids, according to a federal lawsuit that seeks to scuttle the city's noise and breach-of-peace ordinances.
Stephen Nylen, described in court documents as a “devout Christian who came to faith while serving in the Army in the recent war in Iraq,’’ wants to preach without fear of arrest.
“Many of those who have heard his messages have appreciated them; some have been neutral and some have been displeased,’’ his lawyer states in the lawsuit.
If the displeased faction complains, or if listeners respond disruptively, Nylen could be ticketed, he claims.
“If someone who dislikes his speech complains to authorities about it, then he will be cited under either the noise ordinance or the breach-of-the-peace ordinance if he does not stop speaking,’’ according to the 23-page complaint filed last week.
He’s asking a U.S. District Court judge to block the city from enforcing the ordinances, which Nylen says violate his First Amendment right to free speech.
Nylen and his attorney did not return calls and messages seeking comment. A spokesperson for the city of Grand Rapids declined comment.
Since 2015, Nylen has engaged in “public religious speaking,’’ typically during summertime festivals and in other outdoor public venues, according to the complaint.
But his conduct has also ruffled feathers and generated complaints to Grand Rapids police. On numerous occasions, officers have told Nylen to clam-up or face arrest, the lawsuit contends.
Nylen says the noise ordinance fails to define the term ‘noise,’ making it impossible to figure out whether specific speech crosses the line.
And the breach of peace ordinance is subjective because if an onlooker responds to Nylen’s activity by shouting or honking a car horn, Nylen could be cited for causing a disturbance, he argues.
“Due to the subjective, vague nature of the city’s ordinances, Mr. Nylen has not been able to obtain a clear indication of the line between permitted and not permitted conduct,’’ the complaint states.
Nylen is outreach and evangelism chair at New City Fellowship OPC, 700 Burton Street SE, according to his Facebook page. He studied at Grace Bible College and Grand Rapids Community College and attended Ottawa Hills High School.
He has a colorful assortment of videos on YouTube; including one in which a woman is told “you love yourself and your sin and you need Jesus.’’ Some videos were shot outside the Planned Parenthood building on Cherry Street SE.
“Mr. Nylen believes that his faith requires him to bring a message of hope and compassion, and he believes that he has a religious and ethical obligation to speak that message to the issue of abortion,’’ according to the federal complaint.
The activity generated complaints to Grand Rapids police. “City law enforcement officials instructed him to stop speaking outside the clinic approximately six times between Aug. 12, 2016 and Oct. 21, 2016,’’ the lawsuit states.
Since October, 2016, Nylen has not “engaged in religious speech near an abortion clinic within city limits, due to the city’s threats that it would prosecute him for doing so if anyone complained about his speech,’’ the lawsuit states.
Violation of the noise and breach of peace ordinances is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The civil rights lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Jonker.
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