Against the Law to Discuss Religion on Public Property? An Incident in Appleton, Wisconsin

Is it against the law to discuss religion on public property? That’s what a Wisconsin man was told Tuesday when he wanted to talk to a couple of our missionaries, Elder Layton of San Jose and Elder Tuipulotu of Tonga.

The missionaries were in front of the public bus station in downtown Appleton, where they tried to strike up a conversation with a couple people. Two simply weren’t interested, but a man on a bench wanted to talk. They had just begun their conversation when a man in a blue uniform approached them (they weren’t sure if he was a security guard or a bus driver). The employee in the uniform stated that it was illegal to do “religious recruiting” on city property and asked them to stop. The man that was talking to them bristled at this demand. “I’m just having a conversation about religion with them. What’s wrong with that?” The employee said that the missionaries were trying to get him to join their church, and that was against the law on public property. “I’m not joining their church, I’m just having a civil discussion, and why should that be a problem?” The employee again insisted that it was the religious nature of the conversation that made it illegal. The man then asked a excellent series of questions: “Is it illegal for me to talk to them about politics?” No. “How about science of math?” No. “History?” No. “Well, why should it be illegal to talk to them about religion?” Because that’s what the law says.

Now the man the missionaries were talking to was really irked. “Look, I’m an educated man. I didn’t go to Marquette University for six years to learn how to be silent. I have the freedom to talk about religion and to do it on city property, and you have no right to tell me not to.” The employee again told them that they were wrong and would have to leave, but I guess he felt unable to convince the feisty graduate of Marquette and left. But a few moments later, a second employee in a uniform came over and repeated the mantra or religious discussion being illegal on city property and asked the missionaries to leave. Bless his soul, the bold Marquette graduate repeated his performance of standing up for religious liberty and sent the uniformed employee on his way. The missionaries were able to continue their discussion with the man for another twenty minutes without further attempts at suppressing the religious content of their conversation — and fortunately were not hauled away in chains.

Elder Tuipulotu, who was a rugby star on the national team of Tonga before coming to the US on a mission, wasn’t use to this kind of treatment. “I don’t get this. In Tonga, you can talk about anything you want.” Maybe the US could learn something from Tonga.

The next day the missionaries went to City Hall to inquire about the law. They were shown relevant portions of the printed law, and saw that there are restrictions on selling things on city property, but not on religious discourse or even proselyting. They were told that as long as they weren’t obstructing traffic, there should have been no problem with what they were doing.

Sadly, we live in a society where discussions about religion are frowned upon. Not just frowned upon, but even viewed as illegal by some authority figures. It’s part of the slow erosion of religious liberty in a growing current of religious intolerance. Like the Appleton student who was told that she couldn’t pick Jesus as the topic of her essay on a historical figure she admired (based on the legal principle of separation of Church and state, you see), the incident at the bus station was just a minor incident, but one that reflects a larger reality that should move us to be more vigilant in standing up for religious freedom.

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Author: Jeff Lindsay

18 thoughts on “Against the Law to Discuss Religion on Public Property? An Incident in Appleton, Wisconsin

  1. This reminds me of my youthful indiscretions – as an owner of a less then upstanding vehicle. Getting pulled over by the ever vigilant police and have laws stated to me that i was violating. Some of the laws just didn’t make sense to me, so I drove over to city hall asked to see the laws and ordinances that were explained to me – and even given to me as a ticket.

    What I found was – most were based on part of the law, but weren’t complete as they had been explained. So I started making photocopies and keeping them in my vehicle. What I found was, police officers don’t like to be told they’re wrong, and they were wrong a lot about what laws they thought I was breaking.

  2. I would actually consider checking out the American Center for Law and Justice. I realize they’re a protestant group, but this is just the type of thing they can advise on or even contact the city about.

    They’re enlightened enough to realize that while the incident might specifically hurt LDS missionaries, the policy will also prevent any religious discussion on that property, even those by protestants trying to pray with someone or talk about their own faith.

  3. You can add this to the list of examples of the slow, steady decline of the protection of civil rights in the United States.

    From religious symbols and texts not being allowed to be displayed on public property, to the banning of the mentioning of God at public events, to governments taking private property to give to other private citizens (developers), to the invasions of privacy being conducted by the current administration in the name of “security” — we have lost a government responsible to its people and replaced it with a people responsible to their government.

  4. Honestly, I’m touched by this story (and I’m a pretty cold fellow 🙂

    Here’s to the nameless man who’s willing to stand up for civil discourse!

  5. Perhaps they were just a couple of “Christians” who wanted to quiet the Mormons. Nothing like a little anti-Mormon bigotry to make a “good Christian” feel even better.

    I’ve heard of LDS students who were barred from joining High School Bible Clubs because they weren’t Christian enough.

  6. I had a similar experience when I was a missionary in Poland. We were tracting in the stairwell of an apartment building one night when a lady got mad at us and said we were breaking the law. Not wanting to do anything illegal, we went to the police station the next day and found out that we were not breaking any laws. That was a relief.

  7. I wouldn’t be so quick to see this incident as part of some trend. This is just an example of an overly zealous, perhaps bigoted, sescurity person. No court in the land would have let this stand.

  8. I agree with the last comment. This violates the first ammendment in such a fundemental way that it shouldn’t even make it to court.

    Obviously, the security guard didn’t know what he was talking about.

  9. Perhaps the security guards were thinking of “company policy” for private property shopping malls and thinking they applied to public property.

    Or perhaps the bus station and the bench in front of it was under control of a private contractor (kind of like an airport) and not truely public property. In that case, proselyting would fall under the bigger umbrella of soliciting.

    However, even so, the most the officer/security person should have done was to ask the missionaries not to initiate contacts, IE solicit. However, once the man wanted to talk, there really was nothing the officer/security guy could have done, regardless of what the laws/rules governing that piece of property were.

    I’ve been in an enclosed shopping mall (private property) with missionaries. I took them in to go with me to make contact with someone I already was acquainted with, because I had recently received a shipment of church material in that man’s native language.

    I forgot to tell the missionaries that they could not initiate approaches in the mall. Technically, they could engage in conversation if someone else initiated it.

    However, when a mall security officer (private duty) saw one missionary talking to someone (I forget who initiated it in that particular instance), he went over to the missionary and politely informed him not to proselyte.

    These are the kinds of things I think about because in my book placement project I initiate conversations on both public and private property, outside, and inside businesses.

    The key factor for me is to disengage as soon as the other person gives any indication that they don’t want to talk. However, if I’m inside a store, talking to a fellow customer, and that other customer willingly engages me in conversation, and doesn’t complain about what I’m doing/saying, there is nothing the store employees can rightfully complain about.

    When I converse with a store employee, I often ask “is it okay if I give you this when you’re on duty?” And as long as I’m not making other customers wait, I think it’s okay. I often stand back and wait until there are no other customers in line.

    My personal opinion is that the Savior is pleased when we make mention of his name and his church in public. He said something about if we are not ashamed of him before men, then he will not be ashamed of us before the father.

  10. lets see if you feel the same of freedom of speech and don’t delete my post…i have a large distrust and dislike for ORGANIZED religion. I am sick of religious institution’s sending their masses out to try and convert others…especially when the message includes stuff like “you are evil, and only we can get your soul into heaven”. What a joke. The one thing I know is that the more ORGANIZED religion tries to push their beliefs, the more backlash they will feel. For all those who are sick of this here is some suggestions for protest: TAKE A BLACK MARKER AND REDACT THE PHRASE “IN GOD WE TRUST” ON UNITED STATES PAPER MONEY. Also if someone does approach you tell them if they don’t leave you alone you will go to a church in their ORGANIZATION and piss on the alter or maybe in the wine. Now how do you feel about freedom of speech?

  11. At least give your free speech a name.

    You’re just “Anon-ing” it. If you’re going to attempt ticking everyone off (which you haven’t me, anyway), then at least take credit for it.

  12. Anon at 7:29am:

    I’ve been approached by over-zealous proselyters before. You’re right. It’s not pleasant. When I was 14, a friend from school (who was 15) took me and some others to visit his church (they had a cheap buffet aftwards, imagine teenagers at a buffet). Their sunday school teacher for our age group was very over-bearing. He cornered me after class, “brow-beat” me and literally bullied me into saying his “I hereby accept Jesus” prayer. It really turned me off.

    Folks like him give Christianity a bad name.

    If Mormon missionaries ever tell you that “you are evil, and only we can get your soul into heaven” you should get their names from their name tags, and report them to their mission president. Their mission office should be in the phone book under “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Actually, they should be able to give you the office’s phone number if you request it. And if they don’t, you should report that fact too.

    Fortunately, in spite of that bad experience at age 14, I found out that there really is a God and a Jesus Christ, and that Jesus wants more than lip service or “magic prayers.”

    God is still a wonderfull loving God even though some of the people who “believe” in him are real jerks.

    There was a period in my life when I was angry at Mormons. One day, most likely at random, two Mormon missionaries knocked on my door, and said they had a message. I said “no thanks” and started to close the door. The one in front put his foot across the threshhold and caused me to press harder on the door in order to push his foot back and get the door closed.

    Boy, that really ticked me off. I wasn’t sure whether to call the cops, or call their mission president. I eventually calmed down and decided not to report it.

    In the end, obnoxious missionaries, of any church, are a self-correcting problem. If members of any given church become offensive to members of the public, that church will eventually die out.

    Think it through. If you complain to the church superiors of an obnoxious proselyter, they’ll just use your “feedback” to improve their approach, and maybe make more converts.

    If you just allow the obnoxious proselyters to remain obnoxious, then they’ll just continue to waste their time by ticking people off.

    The bottom line is you can’t change other people unless they want to change, and the world is full of jerks. Let them be who they are, and develop thick skin.

  13. Actually the so called LDS Mafia is called the Danites,,,,,,and they are everywhere,,,,,Right Jeff??????

    I too used to not want to talk to the LDS missionaries but I would never go so far as to interject in between them and someone they were talking to.

    In due time I came to the realization that what I beleived and what the LDS church taught were the same thing.


  14. I think this type of treatment is increasing. I am the ward mission leader in our ward and recently the missionaries have been kicked out of numerous apartment complexes.

    On a good note, one day they were going to visit somebody in an apartment complex and the manager pulled up in a police car and told them they had to live immediately. They explained that they were going to meet with somebody specific, but were not allowed to meet the fellow. When he found out he took the side of the missionaries and went and “talked” with the manager of the apartment complex. He has since moved and is still meeting with the missionaries.

    Sometimes opposition can be a good thing…

  15. I had a run in with the police once when they made up a law. I was feeding pigeons, when two cops came up to me and told me it was against the law. I thought it was ridiculous and asked to see it in their code book, they searched for it, but it didnot exist. so they found one for scattering lunch remains!It was early in the morning, and I was throwing one small piece of bread a a time.

  16. First off let me say, I’m not Mormon, actually I’m quite the opposite I’m Wiccan, but there is a huge similarity in your religion and mine that many religions don’t, the belief in freedom of religion, not mocking or belittling someone because they are not what we are, that is a very important thing, I think.
    I believe that in this story the man was right for defending his rights. If the two missionaries were harrasing the man and trying to bully him to listen, then I could see the problem but if the man started the conversation then they were not bothering him, and I think it very narrow minded in trying to stop these discussions and it shows an insecurity in your religion to try to ban someone from talking about theirs, it shows your scared that they may say something to prove yours wrong and that shows you don’t have the proper faith in your god(s).
    I have a Mormon friend and a Catholic friend we talk all the time about our seperate beliefs, we never get upset or tell the other they are wrong for what they believe. I know what I think after these discussions is that I’m right but if the other persons religion gives them the comfort and stability they need for their life, then it is right for them and not for anyone else to mock. I’m very upset about the man who claims that “organized” religion is to be distrusted. It is people like him, that cause the whole dollar bill and Pledge of Allegiance issues, that make my religion look bad. I have no issues with either of these the word God is used to describe all Gods, yours, mine and others. Plus, it is a matter of tradition not of religion.
    I’m trying to do some basic research of LDS and other relgions though if anyone has any good sites, I would love to have them.

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