Sidewalk preachers in Wisconsin claim police harassed them

(PORTAGE, Wisc.) -- Four public park preachers claimed in a federal lawsuit Friday that Portage police violated their constitutional rights by harassing them while they preached in a city park.

Gregory Breneman, Douglas Berthon, Dale Stanford and Paul Soenksen said the police are keeping them from exercising their sincerely held Christian beliefs.

The men said they believe ''they should publicly preach and personally share a biblical gospel message in the public areas'' of Portage.

They said they preach from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays in a park and on the sidewalk at the edge of the park.

The lawsuit, against the city and its police department, said Breneman, Stanford and Berthon were preaching on the sidewalk on Sept. 15, when police Sgt. Adam Malchow threatened to arrest them for disorderly conduct.

The city disorderly conduct law bars ''noisy'' or ''unreasonably loud'' conduct that ''tends to annoy or disturb any other person.''

When the men said their constitutional rights were being violated, police Chief Vern Schuetz arrived and ordered the man to leave the sidewalk, the lawsuit said.

When Breneman continued to peacefully question police, officer Gary Peterson arrested him on a charge of obstructing police and took him to jail, the lawsuit said.

''When plaintiff Breneman was at the jail he asked to make a telephone call but was told . . . that all of the telephones were out of order,'' the lawsuit said.

Breneman wasn't prosecuted, but the men asked for a court order barring the police from harassing them and declaring part of the disorderly conduct law unconstitutional.

Portage Mayor Bill Tierney said he couldn't comment because he hadn't seen the suit.

Mathew Staver, a Florida-based lawyer for the four, said the men had been ''sharing their faith'' in the Portage park since mid-summer.

''Each citizen has a right to meet in a public park or on a public sidewalk to peacefully share their views with those willing to listen,'' said Staver, of Liberty Counsel, which is active in similar, religious-themed lawsuits.

(iSyndicate; Wisconsin State Journal Nov. 18, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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