DEARBORN, Mich. — First, the Catholic-run Thomas More Law Center won acquittals for four evangelical Protestant missionaries jailed for disturbing the peace at an Arab festival in Dearborn, Mich., last year.
Now, the center has sued the city of Dearborn, its mayor, chief of police and 17 police officers, along with the American Arab Chamber of Commerce on the missionaries’ behalf.
“We’re all Catholics at the center,” said Thomas More’s chief trial counsel, Robert Muise. “But most of our clients are Protestants, because they tend to be more aggressive in asserting their First Amendment rights.”
That’s for sure. At times, as many as 40 evangelical missionaries have descended on Dearborn, which has the largest concentration of Arabs in the United States, for its annual Michigan International Arab Festival, usually without incident. That changed in 2009, said Muise, when a new regime at City Hall established a ban on street preaching at the event. Instead, missionaries were allowed to rent booths on the perimeter of the festival, and a small free-speech zone was set up within it.
Thomas More challenged the regulation’s constitutionality in a case that has not yet been tried, but it managed to secure an emergency injunction against the rule just in time for last year’s festival, starting June 18.
Dearborn police took another tack, arresting the four evangelists from Acts 17 Apologetics, a group dedicated to preaching to Muslims, and charging them with disturbing the peace and failing to obey a police officer.
“This is stealth jihad,” Muise said. “It’s sharia in America” — a reference to the law in Muslim countries against Christians preaching to Muslims.
The video footage of the arrests, said Muise, clearly shows that the missionaries spoke calmly and said nothing provocative.
“The missionaries stood in a public place and answered questions put to them, mostly by teenagers,” Muise says. “It was quite orderly.” On Sept. 24, the trial jury apparently agreed, quickly acquitting the foursome of the disturbance charge, while convicting teenager Negeen Mayel of disobeying a police officer who ordered her to stop filming while other officers arrested her preaching partner. Muise is appealing.
“Police violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion and their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unlawful arrest,” said Muise, adding that Mayel did not have to obey a police order connected with an illegal police action. Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly Jr. is included in the lawsuit because of remarks before and after the trial accusing the foursome of “inciting” a disturbance.
Muise’s civil-rights complaint asks a federal court to declare that O’Reilly, the city, the police and the Arab Chamber of Commerce that sponsors the festival together violated the missionaries’ constitutional rights; it also seeks an injunction against any repetition of their actions, unspecified court costs and punitive damages.
O’Reilly claimed the Acts 17 Apologetics team actively sought arrest in order to raise more funds through misleading video footage. “The real violation of First Amendment rights occurs with Acts 17 Apologetics trying to imply they were the victim when the real violation is their attack on the city of Dearborn for having tolerance for all religions, including believers in the Quran,” the mayor stated.
O’Reilly also said the case was really about “hatred of Muslims.” “That is what the whole heart of this is,” he said. “Their idea is that there is no place for Muslims in America. They fail to understand the Constitution.”
But Muise says the only group being persecuted here is the Christian missionaries, while the persecutors are the city and police of Dearborn.
Like the Irish?
However, immigration historian Kevin Kenny of Boston College says the issue in Dearborn is a lot more complex. “It’s true the Christian missionaries are in the minority at the festival,” he said. “But the Arabs are in the minority in the U.S. and even in Michigan.”
What’s more, the missionary activities and the city’s response have encouraged a popular misconception that equates Arabs with Muslims, says Kenny. “The majority of Arabs in America are not Muslims,” he points out. “They are Christians.” (According to the Arab American Institute, 63% of Arab Americans are Christian, half of whom are Catholic.)
The same tendency to stereotype characterized the “nativist” response to large waves of immigration in the 19th century, says Kenny. “There was the same perception of the Irish, which were the first big wave of non-Anglo-Saxon newcomers, as disloyal. Would they obey the laws of the United States or the Pope? And like Arabs today they were seen as violent.” Irish Americans, says Kenny, rioted against the military draft in the Civil War and were involved in labor unrest in the Pennsylvania coal fields a decade later. Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics opposed the expansion of public schools, the temperance movement and Sabbath closing laws.
There was also the same tendency for the second generation of these earlier immigrants to be less law-abiding than the first. “Do you think that having people come to your ethnic festival to tell you that your religion is false and un-American will help you assimilate and adjust?” Kenny asked.
But one of the founders of Acts 17 Apologetics, Nabeel Qureshi, told the Register, “We have no problem with Muslims coming to the U.S. We welcome them because we can discuss our faith with them far more freely here than in the Muslim countries they come from.”
Nor are Muslims hard to approach. “They are very open about their beliefs,” he said.
A convert from Islam, Qureshi says he is taking Dearborn to court because he wants to stop the police from interfering in Christian mission work.
Said Qureshi, “If we don’t do this, they will only get worse.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.