Guards try to keep preacher off plaza stage

Some call city action unconstitutional
El Paso Times, Jan. 10, 2003
Adriana M. Chávez

Ted Mills has spent half of his 70 years preaching the Scriptures in Downtown El Paso’s San Jacinto Plaza, answering what he sees as his calling from God.

But security guards in recent days have confronted the preacher and warned him that his activities may be running afoul of city ordinances regulating use of the city’s historic plaza.

Mills, who’s been preaching in the plaza on and off for 39 years, sees the warning as a classic case of government trying to infringe on his religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Two experts on freedom of religion say he’s right.

“He told me he was either going to ticket me in violation of some ordinance or forcefully make me stop,” Mills said of a security guard who called police to the plaza Wednesday shortly after he began his regular 3 p.m. preaching. “I sure don’t want to lose my liberties. I have the right to say or print anything that’s moral.”

Ray Cox, acting director of the El Paso Parks and Recreation Department, said the city was simply trying to enforce an ordinance that requires anyone using the plaza stage to get a city permit and pay a $5-an-hour rental fee.

Security guards who approached Mills again Thursday told him that he needed a permit if he wanted to use the stage but that he could preach elsewhere in the plaza without a permit if he desired. But they also told him he had to keep his voice down and stay away from sidewalks where city buses pick up passengers.

Susie Ramirez, a security guard who patrols the Sun Metro bus stops, told Mills on Thursday that the sidewalks around the plaza are private property belonging to the city’s bus system.

“We’ve had some security issues with people who are preaching, stopping people and forcibly wanting them to listen to them,” Ramirez told a small gathering that included Mills; his wife, Annette; another security guard; a police officer; and a couple of other plaza evangelists.

A lawyer with a leading religious liberty advocacy group said the security guards violated the rights of the park evangelists by imposing such restrictions.

Courts traditionally have held that speaking and preaching in parks and on public sidewalks have the highest level of constitutional protection, said Hiram Sasser, a staff lawyer with the Liberty Legal Institute out of Plano, Texas.

“He can speak on sidewalks and distribute pamphlets all he wants, and he can speak and distribute pamphlets in parks all he wants,” Sasser said. “I challenge the city to produce whatever ordinance that is against him speaking loudly.”

A Baylor University professor who’s considered one of the nation’s leading experts on freedom of religion said the city could legally regulate access to the plaza stage. But steps beyond that would probably violate First Amendment protections, said Derek H. Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor.

“If this is a stage that is frequently used by either city officials or they rent it out to members of the public for use, then they would have the right to regulate the use of that stage,” Davis said. “But short of that, if it was just a common area of the plaza where people frequent all the time, then they wouldn’t have the right to unduly restrict free speech rights.”

Street evangelists are part of the scenery at San Jacinto Plaza, the historic heart of the city that also serves as a major bus transfer point. Thousands of people pass through the plaza each weekday.

Most of the evangelists spread their message in Spanish, some shouting. Mills preaches in both Spanish and English in a voice that’s loud but generally stops short of a shout.

People who visit the plaza regularly have come to expect people aggressively sharing their religious convictions, said Esther Sanchez, 61, of Central El Paso.

“It doesn’t offend me generally,” Sanchez said as she waited in the plaza for a bus Thursday morning. “People have a right to say what they want, just as long as they’re not violent or get mad when they think you’re not listening.”

Mills said he and his wife are fixtures in the plaza on most afternoons. He reads from Scripture as she stands quietly by. After he finishes preaching and reading, the pair come down from the stage and pass out pamphlets to passers-by and strike up conversation with those who stop.

It’s a familiar routine for the couple, who have been spreading the word in the plaza for many of the past 39 years. They’ll preach for several years until they run short on money, return to their native Tennessee to work for a few years, then head back to El Paso to resume their mission in the plaza.

They raised 13 children along the way, including eight who graduated from college and three who are attending college, Ted Mills said with pride.

He said he never had problems with authorities in the plaza until this week, when he returned after missing a couple of weeks because of illness.

Mills said a security guard told him Tuesday that he’d be evicted from the park if he preached the next day. The evangelist returned to the Plaza on Wednesday afternoon after alerting the El Paso Times about the previous day’s confrontation.

As he mounted the stage at 3 p.m. and began reading from the Bible, security guard Frank Wanecek went to a pay phone to call police. Two officers on bicycles arrived about 10 minutes later.

The officers said they wouldn’t take action against Mills until they could research the situation further.

“We’ve talked to our supervisors and city parks (officials), and there’s no straight answer,” Officer Miguel Torres said. “The security guard was told by parks personnel to lodge a complaint. There’s a gray line, and we’re trying to determine what’s right.”

Mills returned to the plaza at 3 p.m. Thursday and preached again from the stage. This time he was approached by security guards Wanecek and Ramirez. Other plaza regulars and a police officer soon joined in an animated but polite conversation that touched on issues including salvation and the intent of the Founding Fathers.

Cox, of the Parks and Recreation Department, said the issue is Section 13.24.200 of the Municipal Code, which restricts use of the plaza stage to permit holders who have paid an hourly rental fee.

“To my knowledge, there’s nothing in the ordinance about using any other portion of the park,” Cox said. “Apparently, the ordinance had not been enforced as well as it should have been in the past. We’re now giving guards instructions to enforce it.”

Wanecek told Mills on Thursday that he was allowed to pass out fliers in the plaza and to preach from anywhere but the stage but was not allowed to raise his voice to a shout. Ramirez warned him repeatedly that he could not draw a large crowd or preach on the sidewalks of the bus transfer area behind the stage.

The evangelist said he’d be back today. Mills said that if not using the stage would end the controversy, he won’t use it. But, he said, he will continue his ministry. “I’m willing to stand up for my rights,” Mills said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday January 11, 2003.
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