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Judge prevents Baltimore from banning gathering of Catholic group

Baltimore city officials cannot bar a conservative Roman Catholic media outlet from holding a prayer rally at a city-owned pavilion at a meeting of US bishops next month, a federal judge said, saying that the First Amendment right to free speech is “at the heart of this matter.”

U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander ruled on Tuesday night that St. Michael’s Media Inc., also known as Church Militant, was likely to succeed in her claims that the city discriminated against her based on his political views and violated his First Amendment free speech rights. .

Judge’s order says city officials cannot bar the lodge manager from contracting with Michigan-based St Michael’s Media to use the venue for a rally and conference he plans to host November 16.

But the judge refused to set contract terms ordered by the court for a rally. Hollander’s order said she “anticipates negotiations in good faith, but expresses no opinion on the terms of a contract.”

The waterfront lodge is across from a hotel where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is scheduled to hold its national meeting from November 15-18. St. Michael’s said it deliberately chose the date and place of its gathering to coincide with the bishops. Meet. The group also said they held a city-authorized peaceful rally at the same site during the national bishops’ meeting in 2018.

The city says the rally poses a threat to public safety, arguing that the fringe group encouraged the rioters who stormed the United States Capitol in January. The city also said that Yiannopoulos’ speeches attracted counter-protesters and resulted in violence and property damage, while Bannon “regularly called for violence against government officials.”

But the judge said the city “presented somewhat shifting justifications for its actions, with little evidence to show the decision was based on those justifications.” The city appears to have based its decision on the “early reaction” of counter-protesters that could lead to violence at the rally, Hollander noted.

“The city’s invocation of a rowdy veto also raises serious concerns that its decision was prompted by point of view discrimination,” she wrote. “The City cannot invoke hypothetical hecklers and then grant them a veto. “

The judge also questioned the relevance of the city’s claims regarding St. Michael’s Media’s reaction to the Capitol Riot.

“This is underlined by the fact that the city never accuses St. Michael’s of actual involvement in the events of January 6, 2021. Rather, it criticizes the plaintiff for its coverage and support of the event,” wrote Hollander.

Two city attorneys did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the judge’s 86-page ruling.

Marc Randazza, an attorney for St. Michael’s Media, said he had no doubt the rally would go as planned now that the judge ruled in favor of the group.

“I’m surprised the city of Baltimore has pushed us this far to get there,” he said,

On September 13, St. Michael’s Media sued the city, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and city attorney James Shea.

In a court case, the city said it asked the contractor who runs the pavilion to cancel the event “out of legitimate fear it might incite violence in the heart of downtown Baltimore.”

“And for a city like Baltimore, with a police department already stretched with a well-documented police shortage, the decision to cancel an event featuring a speaker who invites additional protesters, counter-protesters, expenses and potential violence is more than reasonable. ”, Wrote the lawyers of the city, referring to Yiannopoulos.

Yiannopoulos told a hearing that he had adopted a softer, less caustic tone in his speeches in recent years and that he doubted any counter-protesters would show up at an event like the one St. Michael’s wants to host.

“The risk seems close to zero to me,” said Yiannopoulos, now a paid columnist for St. Michael’s Media. “No one comes to protest against me these days, which is a big relief. “

St. Michael’s Media offered to remove Yiannopoulos and Bannon from the rally’s list of speakers and let the city censor speeches, but the city rejected those overtures, Randazza said.

“I feel like there is a real disgust and dislike for my clients, which I find disconcerting,” he added. . “

In 2017, a confidant of Pope Francis specifically mentioned in an article condemning the way some American Evangelicals and Catholics mix religion and politics. The article by Reverend Antonio Spadaro in a Vatican-approved magazine said the media presented the 2016 presidential election as a “spiritual war” and Trump’s rise to the presidency as “a divine election.”