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Duluth considers settling with Bentleyville preachers

Forum News Service

The Duluth City Council will consider on Monday whether to approve a $177,500 settlement that would resolve a suit brought by two evangelists who claimed their civil rights were violated when they were told to leave a holiday light display at Bayfront Park, where they were preaching.

Steve Jankowski, a local minister, and Peter Scott, a member of his congregation, sued the city after being ordered by Duluth police to leave a light display produced by Bentleyville Tour of Lights Inc. in November 2012. The men claimed the city had wrongly deprived them of their right to free speech by forcing them to cease preaching in the park.

Instead, the pair was told they could continue to proselytize only if they moved into a cordoned-off “free-speech zone” in a neighboring parking lot.

In December, Judge Michael Davis issued an injunction requiring the city to allow Jankowski and his followers to hand out literature and preach their faith at the event. In his ruling, Davis determined that because the display was set up in a public park and Bentleyville charged no admission, it was obligated to respect individuals’ right to free speech on the site.

The two parties began working to mediate a settlement with the help of Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois in May and recently emerged with a tentative agreement.

City Attorney Gunnar Johnson has recommended the Duluth City Council approve the settlement, which will cover Jankowski’s and Scott’s legal fees. The men were represented by a team of five lawyers, including lead attorney Nathan Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression, based in Memphis, Tenn. Kellum did not return calls from the News Tribune on Wednesday.

Attempts to reach Jankowski and Scott directly were unsuccessful.

The settlement also lays out new rules governing future preaching activities at the Bentleyville Festival of Lights. During the event, they will be free to express their religious views with signs, literature and speech on the sidewalks leading to the entrance of Bayfront Festival Park.

Within the gates, however, the tentative settlement says they “may not yell or shout and shall limit any oral/verbal communications to a conversational volume.”

“If Mr. Jankowski and Mr. Scott want to continue to preach at Bentleyville, they will need to do so with the confines of this agreement,” said Johnson, who characterized the prospective settlement as “a compromise.”

Johnson also cited part of the tentative agreement that said it “shall not be construed as an admission of liability on the part of the city of Duluth, its agents, officers or employees, all of whom expressly deny liability.”

If the City Council votes in favor of the settlement, it will be incorporated into a consent decree.

Forum News Service

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