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Notebook Law

‘It’s a free country’

Ramin Parsa (Handout)

Law

‘It’s a free country’

Common sense, common grace—in one case

One well-publicized case ended this month in a slight win for religious liberty and freedom of speech. The City of Bloomington, Minn., gave up on its case against Ramin Parsa and agreed not to pursue prosecution further—and the resolution offers some lessons for others hit by clampdowns.

The legal battle began on Aug. 25 when Parsa, a pastor from Los Angeles, was strolling The Mall of America, a huge enterprise that bills itself as a tourist destination for 40 million people annually from around the world. Enrique Flores, a Minnesota church elder, and Flores’ 14-year-old son were with him.

Parsa, 33, says two Somali women approached the threesome at 8:30 p.m., struck up a conversation, and asked if Parsa was a Muslim. When he said he used to be but was now a Christian, the women asked him to explain. So Parsa told them how he converted to Christianity in Iran, survived stabbing by a Muslim, escaped to Turkey, and in 2008 gained admission to the United States as a Christian refugee. He is now a U.S. citizen.

Parsa and Flores both say the women were eager to talk, but a third woman overheard the conversation and asked Parsa to shut up. When he said he was just answering questions, the third woman shouted that he was harassing them and left to find a security guard, who arrived and told Parsa he couldn’t solicit at the mall. Parsa said he was merely answering questions during a private conversation.

The guard walked away. Parsa and his friends went to a nearby Starbucks. When they left the coffee shop, three security guards stopped them. According to the police report, mall security asked a family at Starbucks what Parsa had been talking about with them, and the family members said: religion. The guards told Parsa the mall is private property and told him to leave. Parsa said he had a right to be there. The guards said Parsa remarked, “It’s a free country,” and threatened to sue the mall. Two more guards arrived.

Jim Mone/AP

The Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minn. (Jim Mone/AP)

Flores says “the guards bullied us and tried to intimidate us.” He watched them force Parsa’s hands behind his back and handcuff him. Two guards escorted Flores and his son out of the mall. Other guards brought Parsa to a basement holding area. Parsa says they kept him tied to a chair for more than three hours, not allowing him food, drink, or a phone. Police then arrived and charged him with criminal trespass. He bailed himself out around 2 a.m.

Anthony Bushnell, Parsa’s attorney, says mall security guards singled out Parsa for discussing religion: Such discrimination violates public accommodation laws and the First Amendment. Parsa and his advisors decided not to keep quiet about the arrest: He told his story to Christian publications and on Christian radio.

Last month Mike Hartley, deputy chief of Bloomington police, told me “Parsa was approaching people to talk about his religion, forcing dialogue, and those people complained.” He said Parsa would not stop and stated that this incident is no different than if Parsa were preaching on a megaphone in a private space.

The case was scheduled to go to trial on April 29, but on March 7 Bloomington officials came to their senses and dropped the charges. It’s not really a victory for religious liberty: The court documents say Parsa may not go to the mall for a probationary period of one year, and Parsa may pursue legal action against the mall. The question is still open: Can visitors to a mall discuss religion in a venue touting “America” in its name?

—Sharon Dierberger is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute’s mid-career course

Comments

  • CM
    Posted: Sat, 03/02/2019 01:08 am

    It is amazing what lengths "freedom of speech" has been stretched--to protect pornography, etc, but when it comes to true freedom of expression, the liberal left seems bent on shutting down any speech that is not politically correct.  They tolerate anything with which they agree.  

  • RC
    Posted: Sat, 03/02/2019 10:29 am

    We will see what is alive and well at the Mall of America, Muslim Sharia Law or USA Constitutional Law.  

    It is interesting that the deputy chief of police did not use the word “alleged” when describing the behavior of Ramin Parsa.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sat, 03/02/2019 04:22 pm

    A very sad day in America. Hopefully, the original two women might be able to testify in Parsa's favor. 

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 03/02/2019 09:47 pm

    I have been in Parsa's situation before, although not for talking about my Christian beliefs.  Sometimes mall customers become busybodies.  Sometimes instead of saying, "Not interested," and walking away, they rather say, "Yes, yes, yes," then get security after the person walks away.  Or they say, "Not interested," and still tell security.  These people, in my opinion, are jerks.

    Security guards, once called, need to enforce mall policies, whether they like it or not.  So even though a jerk may have called security, it might be wise to avoid defensive behavior and do what the security guard says to do.  Escalating the situation only hurts one's cause.

    This is not to say that Parsa is in the wrong.  The real issue is probably that he was not paying the mall a fee for the right to solicit.  If he had been paying a mall fee for the right to solicit, he could have solicited to his heart's content.  Which begs the question:  would the mall approve such a contract?  Something tells me that they would probably not offer such a contract.  This is where the First Amendment applies, I think.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Thu, 03/21/2019 07:31 pm

    If Parsa's version of events is correct, he wasn't doing anything close to soliciting. He didn't approach the women, or bring up the topic of religion to them. They initiated both. But mall security probably assumed he was the one who had started the conversation.

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Sun, 03/03/2019 10:36 am

    "It's a free country" is becoming less true every day.  Truth is becoming so unpopular that merely speaking it is a crime in some cases.  In other cases it will get you fired.  At the very least it brings ridicule.  Let us not be ashamed of the gospel.