On the city council's agenda tomorrow is a closed-session briefing concerning a lawsuit filed against the city. No big deal. Happens all the time. Except this one involves someone kinda familiar: a minister who recently filed suit in federal court in Dallas to get the U.S. Secret Service off his back when he was distributing religious tracts that looked like million-dollar bills. Darrel Rundus, of the Denton-based Great News Network ministry, lost that suit: On June 22, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis said the Secret Service could keep the pamphlets that had been seized from his office on June 2. But Rundus, clearly, is not one to take defeat lying down: On October 5, he filed a federal suit against the city and the State Fair of Texas, claiming they're trying to keep him from preaching the gospel on the fairgrounds.
In an amended complaint filed against the city and State Fair only yesterday, Rundus' attorney--Brian Fahling of the Christian legal defense organization Center for Law & Policy in Tupelo, Mississippi--claims that Rundus and "other Christians" have been hounded and threatened by Dallas police officers since they first began handing out tracts at the fair in 2004. Rundus claims he was moved to the sidewalk outside the fair, which seems...uh...fair. Yet, the suit alleges, "Rundus and the others were again threatened with arrest for preaching, sharing the gospel and leafleting on the sidewalk and the area adjacent to Fair Park. They feared being arrested, so they left." Rundus claims this again happened last year and, fearing a repeat performance, decided this time around to file suit against the city--the proverbial pre-emptive strike.
Says the suit: "Rundus desires to return to the Texas State Fair beginning October 12, 2006 to share his faith with others, to preach the gospel, and to hand out leaflets, but fears he may be arrested if he does. As a result, Rundus is being chilled and deterred in the exercise of his constitutional rights by the past actions of" the city. In short: First Amendment, etc., etc.
The State Fair and the city, of course, do not see it that way.
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Yesterday, the city filed its response, in which it says that on September 18, Rundus' attorney Fahling sent Dallas police chief David Kunkle a letter informing him of Rundus' intention to preach during the State Fair. The attorney requested that Kunkle not violate Rundus' First Amendment rights, and, says the city, the missive also instructed the chief to tell his officers not to "interefere with citizens who exercise their rights under the First Amendment at Fair Park, whether outside or inside Fair Park." Tom Perkins, the city attorney, also got a letter in which Rundus threatened to sue the police department should officers hassle the preacher.
On September 29, the city and the chief faxed their response to Fahling, though he didn't get it till October 3 "due to a faxing error," says the city's response. Two days later, Rundus' attorney filed the initial application for a temporary restraining order, demanding the city keep its hands off. That day, the city and the State Fair folks got together to agree that sidewalks "are public forums," but not the Fair Park grounds. Last Friday, Fahling and Rundus had a phone conference with city and State Fair attorneys informing them of the deal: You get the sidewalks, but nothing else. That wasn't good enough for Rundus. He wants in and nothing short of that. In its October 9 response, the city says, in short: Ain't gonna happen.
In its response, filed only this morning, the State Fair's attorneys say that, first of all, this isn't even the city's call. Rather, during the fair, the grounds in their entirety are under the control of the State Fair of Texas, which, say the legal docs, "prohibits all Fair attendees from distributing or promoting literature in the portions of the State Fair devoted to the Fair." The fair's response is, hey, you wanna preach the gospel, no sweat. But you must rent a space from the State Fair to do it and keep your activities confined to that area. As far as the State Fair is concerned, "Darrell Rundus, invoking the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, asks this Court to require State Fair to make an exception for him." And attorney Bryan Neal of Thompson & Knight says that ain't about to happen, as far as his client is concerned.
"State Fair's position is simple: it has not--and indeed cannot--violate Rundus' First Amendment rights," says the its response. "As a private tenant at Fair Park, State Fair has the legal right to exclude whomever it chooses on whatever terms it chooses, subject only to nondiscrimination obligations not in issue here." The response goes on for another 22 pages, but suffice it to say the State Fair feels good about their position. If nothing else, if Rundus wants to preach at Fair Park after the fair, hey, not a problem. Just don't do it while they're serving corn dogs and funnel cakes. --Robert Wilonsky