For all you folks who think the ACLU is anti-religion and never stands up for churches . . .

Vegas preachers, ACLU mount free-speech fight

Wed Nov 17, 9:40 AM ET

By Scott Gold Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

The preacher with a hole in the knee of his jeans and a pocketful of
prayer cards waded through the late-night crowd--young men with hats
on sideways, women in saucy dresses, hired hands passing out fliers
for escort services.

Tom Griner turned a raised palm toward Robert Jones, a 21-year-old
visiting from Illinois.

"Jesus saves!" he shouted.

"Maybe," said Jones, not stopping to chat. "But he didn't win me $500
last night."

The way the American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites) sees it,
the 1st Amendment was made for nights like this. The organization in
recent months has turned a small band of street preachers into
unlikely symbols of free speech--fighting, sometimes in noisy
confrontations with police and casinos, for the preachers' right to
spread the Gospel on the Las Vegas Strip.

The alliance is awkward. The preachers openly despise the ACLU, which
they view as an insufferably liberal institution. The ACLU doesn't
think much of the preachers' condemnations of "fornicators,"
Democrats, women who seek abortions and people who have not accepted
Christ as their savior.

And the Las Vegas establishment doesn't think much of the whole issue;
evangelical preachers bellowing about "homos," "porno freaks" and the
devil don't fit with the city's anything-goes marketing scheme.

But the ACLU forged ahead because, the organization said, a
long-percolating dispute between the casinos and the preachers
threatened the quintessential American venue for free expression: the

Tenuous deal reached

This fall, the group's campaign resulted in a tenuous agreement among
casinos, police and city leaders that allows the preachers to stay. If
the agreement holds, it could mark the end of a decade-long fight to
give control over the sidewalks back to the public.

"We know we don't fit into the motif here," Griner said. "But
they"--he nodded toward the casinos behind him--"are not the only game
in town."

Courts have long held that sidewalks are constitutionally protected
forums for public opinion. Generally, as long as people are doing
things that are otherwise legal, they can do it on the sidewalk. Vegas
being Vegas, however, it's not that simple here.

In 1993 the city was forced to widen portions of Las Vegas Boulevard,
including the 2-mile Strip that runs along the themed casinos. New
sidewalks had to be built on private property in front of casinos,
which increasingly attempted to control activity on the walkways.

The following year, after 500 labor protesters were arrested for
trespassing because the MGM Grand complained, civil libertarians
launched their fight.

A public forum

Eventually the fight led to a lawsuit against the casinos, and in 2001
a federal appellate court sided with a different group of labor
protesters, ruling that the sidewalk in front of the Venetian Casino
Resort was a public forum even though it was on private property.

"What the court said, basically, is that if it looks like a sidewalk,
smells like a sidewalk and functions like a sidewalk, then by golly
it's a public sidewalk," said Gary Peck, executive director of the
Nevada ACLU.