Ban on Rallies Upheld for Lafayette Square
Park Service May Deny Permit for Vigils, Judge Tells Christian Activist Group
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 30, 2002; Page B03
A federal judge upheld a ban on demonstrations in Lafayette Square yesterday, denying a request by a Christian activist group that wanted to hold prayer vigils across the street from the White House today and Sept. 11.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the National Park Service, acting on a series of requests from the Secret Service, was justified in denying all permits for large demonstrations in the park since last year's terrorist attacks.
The regulations do not limit the number of tourists or passersby in the park and allow organized groups of fewer than 25 people to demonstrate there without a permit.
"There is no justification for entering a [temporary restraining order] in this case," Kessler said at the conclusion of an hour-long hearing. "The Park Service's limitation is a reasonable time, place and manner restriction."
The Christian Defense Coalition, a Virginia-based activist group, had requested that Kessler hold the emergency hearing and lift the ban so that it could hold a prayer vigil for up to 500 people on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
The Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the coalition, called Kessler's ruling "a disgrace. . . . It just shows the erosion of civil liberties and free speech since 9/11."
Mahoney said the court "is treating demonstrators differently than anyone else who comes into the park. How are 26 demonstrators more dangerous than 26 tourists?"
Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said, "Obviously, we're very pleased with the ruling."
The ban on demonstrations in the historic park began Sept. 11, when the Secret Service temporarily closed the park and the Ellipse and expanded the White House security perimeter by closing 15th and 17th streets NW around the mansion.
The Secret Service's Office of Protective Operations formally asked the Park Service on Sept. 24 to deny all requests for large demonstrations or special events in Lafayette Square, the Ellipse and on the sidewalks in front of the White House. Public access was soon restored to most of those areas, and the ban on protests at the Ellipse was dropped in December.
But the ban on Lafayette Square remained, renewed on a monthly basis, although several activists groups have challenged the order. The ban for August and September is based partly on classified intelligence information "regarding threats to the President and the White House complex," according to the government's court filing.
"The necessity of limiting large group activity in Lafayette Park is based on the ability of the Secret Service to observe and detect individuals who may either constitute an immediate threat or be preparing for a future threat against the White House," the government's legal brief argued.
At the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurie Weinstein told Kessler that the ban is legal because it does not discriminate against any particular group and is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.
Mahoney said he will cancel plans for the prayer vigils. His attorney, James M. Henderson Sr. of the American Center for Law and Justice, said the coalition plans to appeal the ruling.