Former U.S. attorney cites 1st Amendment in float-barring flap
Former U.S. Attorney Mike Norton offered Wednesday to explore a lawsuit on behalf of a pastor whose church was barred from entering a Christmas float in Denver’s Parade of Lights this weekend.
“If he has an interest in carrying it to the next level, we’re ready,” said Norton, who now works for the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which takes on religious liberty cases, primarily for Christian clients.
Norton’s was among a deluge of calls to Pastor George Morrison the day after the Rocky Mountain News reported on his attempt to join the holiday parade, which celebrates its 30th year Friday and Saturday night in downtown Denver.
Morrison wanted to enter a float featuring multicultural Christian themes and a Merry Christmas message. Parade officials told a representative from Morrison’s church, the 4,000-member Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, that religious messages aren’t allowed because they might offend others.
The Parade of Lights is produced by a private nonprofit organization, the Downtown Denver Partnership. It receives 61 percent of its revenue from a consortium of 350 private commercial property owners whose goal is to promote the “improvement and enhancement” of the city.
Partnership Vice President Susan Rogers Kark said the parade doesn’t receive public money.
Even if the parade is a private entity, there still may be First Amendment issues at play, Norton said. The one-hour parade uses downtown city streets and is promoted as a citywide event.
“There are issues relating to whether the location is a public forum for free speech purposes, and if so, whether the entity involved has a right to suppress some but not all speech,” said Norton, who is the husband of Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.
Kark said the parade hasn’t allowed religious-themed entrants for at least the 10 years that she has been its director. She acknowledged that it may have been different in the early years of the event.
“Many things have changed as we look back 30 years, in terms of being sensitive to fact that there are other traditions” that may find religious displays offensive today, she said Wednesday.
Kark reiterated the parade’s position that several groups are being allowed to march as examples of ethnic diversity.
Those include the Two Spirit Society, which honors gay American Indians as holy people, and an Asian group that performs dances to ward off evil spirits at the start of the Chinese New Year. Kark said they will not be expressing religious messages.
Churches have “bombarded” the offices of Faith Bible Chapel, offering support, said Janette Rasor, Morrison’s assistant. She said many callers say they plan to join church members along the parade route at 6 p.m. Friday, one hour before the parade begins. The group is meeting at 17th and Tremont streets to sing Christmas carols and pass out hot chocolate.
Meanwhile, Morrison, who is in Tennessee this week, said he spent virtually all of Wednesday being interviewed on local radio and TV shows.
His assistant said the pastor also has been asked to be on Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated talk radio show.
Morrison said he has been so busy that he hasn’t had a chance to talk to Norton about a possible lawsuit.