Mary Mason, a former atheist, is dedicated to performing religious outreach to her community in Murphy, North Carolina. She goes out along the streets, sidewalks, and parks with her daughter, Elya, who requires supervision because of mental disabilities. One day while Ms. Mason was performing her outreach, the police stopped her and told her that she needed a permit. Because Ms. Mason had her daughter with her, the police told her she was engaged in a group demonstration under the Town Code. She later applied to the Mayor for a permit, which was denied. Ms. Mason then reached out to Christian Legal Society for help.
The First Amendment provides particularly strong protections to people’s rights to expression in streets, sidewalks, and parks, which “‘have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thought between citizens, and discussing public questions.’” McCullen v. Coakley, 573 U.S. 464, 476 (quoting Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460, 469 (2009)). Additionally, the Fourth Circuit, whose decisions are binding in North Carolina, has clearly established that cities cannot require permits for groups as small as two to three people.
When Ms. Mason presented her matter to the Town Council, CLS prepared a letter for her explaining that requiring Ms. Mason to obtain a permit to do religious outreach with her daughter violates the First Amendment. The Town Council expressed its agreement and indicated that she should not be required to get a permit when she goes out with her daughter. Despite attending the Town Council meeting, the Murphy Chief of Police informed Ms. Mason he will arrest her if she continues to do religious outreach without a permit. CLS represents Ms. Mason and is seeking resolution with the Town government.
What principle is the Center fighting for? Christians and other religious advocates should not be required to obtain government permission to do public outreach in small, unobstructive groups.