The Washington Times, Friday, April 24, 1987

U.S. judge acquits Lafayette Park sleepers

By Jay Mallin


A federal judge yesterday dismissed charges against five persons arrested for sleeping in Lafayette Park, ruling the ban on camping in the park violated their constitutionally protected freedom of religion.

U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey in Washington wrote that he was throwing out the charges because the defendants, reportedly anti-nuclear demonstrators, said they were camping in the park opposite the White House because of a "sincerely held religious belief" and the government failed to show it had a compelling reason to stop them.

The Supreme Court has rejected a similar First Amendment challenge to the law, ruling that sleeping in Lafayette Park is not a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

Judge Richey wrote that at a hearing yesterday prosecutors failed to produce "a scintilla of evidence" that the government has a good reason for stopping people from sleeping in Lafayette Park, a favorite spot for protesters.

"The government did not proffer any response to the defendants' position ... that even remotely met the applicable legal standard' Judge Richey wrote.

For that reason, he said, he was dismissing the charges "on the grounds that defendants' actions were protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment." That clause prohibits federal laws from restricting religion.

"Good for Judge Richey," said Mitch Snyder, an advocate for the homeless who said he had been arrested for violating the same regulation. He said he did not believe the ruling would lead to the park being filled by camping protesters.

"I don't think many people want to hang out 24 hours a day in Lafayette Park, but for those who do, it's important," he said.

Mr. Snyder said the five named as defendants in Judge Richey's order were anti-nuclear demonstrators.

Spokesmen for the National Park Service, which arrests violators of the anti-camping regulation, could not be reached for comment after Judge Richey issued his decision late yesterday

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, charged with prosecuting violators of the regulation, said, "We're studying the matter and have no comment."