A federal judge has cleared the city of Charlotte in a lawsuit brought by controversial Concord preacher Flip Benham and his group "Operation Save America," which demonstrates frequently across the country against abortion and homosexuality.
Reverend Flip Benham has a big voice, but he's spent seven years fighting the city of Charlotte for the ability to be louder. City ordinance requires demonstrators to stay under 75 decibels when using speakers and amplifiers on public sidewalks.
Benham says that's hardly enough to compete with traffic at the corner of Trade and Tryon, where his group likes to rally: "What the city has done is silenced us."
One exception to the 75-decibel rule is if a group obtains a city permit to hold a festival. So in 2010, Operation Save America tried to get one for a gathering of about 200 people in Uptown Charlotte, but the application was denied.
Benham sued, claiming the city rejected the request because of his anti-abortion message.
"They don't like it; they don't want to hear it," says Benham. "They don't want it to be brought before them that there are three abortion mills in this city killing little Charlotteans."
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann says, "The city's decisions were not based on any objection to their religious beliefs or the content of their speech."
U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen ruled late last week in the city's favor, saying the size and scope of Operation Save America's event did not justify closing a portion of Tryon Street for an entire week. Nor did the city's denial of the festival permit violate the group's rights to free speech or due process, since the group was free to gather and demonstrate on city sidewalks without a permit.
Benham thinks it's a double standard that gay pride festival organizers receive a permit to exceed the noise ordinance, but he doesn't.
City attorney Bob Hagemann says not just any gathering qualifies as a festival.
"Those kind of events are an economic development benefit to the city and an entertainment opportunity for tens of thousands of people," says Hagemann. "I think it's a little bit different when you're talking about a street preacher – and again we respect the street preacher's rights - but we don't think the preacher has a right to pump his message into buildings where people are trying to work during business hours."
The city's noise ordinances have not prevented Benham from preaching in the past. He's been arrested more than once for violating the noise limit and says the city hasn't seen the last of his lawsuits.