Preacher fights ban on spreading gospel on Atlanta sidewalks

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ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia preacher who says he was barred from public sidewalks and feared arrest for spreading the gospel on the fringes of a large outdoor concert in Atlanta is challenging the restrictions in court.

In a federal lawsuit, Eric Love says his free speech rights were violated outside the Shaky Beats music festival, which drew thousands in May to downtown Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park.

Love is asking a judge to decide whether the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and its police force can prohibit preaching from the surrounding sidewalks. The authority oversees the park, which was created for the 1996 Olympic Games.

The authority has cited a Georgia law that allows it to ban solicitation and other activities on public sidewalks and streets bordering the park when large events are held. That amounts to an unreasonable ban on free speech, one of Love's lawyers, Terry Lloyd, maintains in the suit.

"These sidewalks are just like any other sidewalks — they're used by the public and they really ought to be open to the public," said Tony Mangini, another attorney for Love, speaking in an interview Wednesday. Mangini is with the Memphis, Tennessee-based Center for Religious Expression, which is representing Love.

Representatives of the authority and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who is named as a defendant, did not immediately return messages Wednesday from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Love cares deeply about people, so he "is compelled to tell people about Jesus Christ and his offer of salvation," the lawsuit states.

"Love does not yell when he preaches; he only speaks loud enough to be heard by those near him, like someone delivering a speech in public," Lloyd wrote.

At the May concert, Love was on a sidewalk outside the park near the entrance when he and two friends were confronted by the authority's police officers, he said.

They were told they needed a permit to express their views on the sidewalk, but were not eligible for such a permit and would have to move, the complaint states.

At one point, one of Love's two friends was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police vehicle but later was released, Love's lawyer wrote.

"Love strongly desires to return to the public sidewalks adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park and share his religious views while large events are taking place in the park, but he does not want to risk criminal arrest," Lloyd wrote.

His lawyer wants the matter resolved so that Love can preach without fear of being arrested outside the SweetWater 420 Fest, another large concert scheduled for the park in April.

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