Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - The federal government has denied a Christian group's request to hold a prayer vigil across the street from the White House on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The group will be in federal court Thursday seeking an injunction to block enforcement of the ban.
"The purpose is just to pray for the safety and protection of our nation, for our president, and for spiritual renewal," the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, told CNSNews.com Wednesday afternoon.
Mahoney said he has been applying for permits to hold similar vigils for 13 years and has never been denied access to Lafayette Park, which is located directly north of the executive mansion, on Pennsylvania Avenue. See White House Map
In its response to Mahoney, the National Park Service said it is not to blame for the denial.
"On Aug. 14, 2002, the United States Secret Service requested that the National Park Service extend the partial and temporary public use limitation through Oct. 1, 2002, and not issue permits in Lafayette Park," an Aug. 20 letter to Mahoney stated. "This extension is to ensure necessary security and safety for the adjacent White House complex, its occupants, and the public."
The Secret Service also cited safety and security in its explanation of the need for the restrictions.
"Intelligence sources and investigative reports continue to indicate that the White House complex may be a target for continued terrorist activity," wrote Donald Flynn, assistant director for the Secret Service Office of Protective Operations in an Aug. 14 letter to the Park Service.
Flynn listed three primary reasons for banning organized gatherings from the park and the sidewalks adjacent to the White House complex.
Groups in Lafayette Park and the White House sidewalk area would be difficult for law enforcement officials to evacuate in the event of an emergency;
The presence of a large group in the area could unintentionally provide concealment, allowing a terrorist to approach the complex without attracting attention; and
Large groups in close proximity to the White House could become primary targets for terrorist activity.
"Under the current emergency conditions and given these specific concerns, we have determined that there are no less restrictive measures that would adequately provide for the safety of the public, the safety of Secret Service protectees, and the security of the White House complex," Flynn added.
But Mahoney said the government's logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny. He pointed out that the park is still open to the public and that any individual or group may come and go as they please, with one exception.
"They're saying, 'We'll allow 50 tourists in, we'll allow a hundred people on a tour bus. They can come and stay in the park as long as they want. But if you want to come and hold a sign and pray ... we're not going to allow you to use the park,'" Mahoney charged.
He also noted that the restrictions are not specific to the anniversary date of terrorist attacks. The Secret Service has filed numerous requests since Sept. 11, 2001. The park has been closed to organized protests or demonstrations of more than 25 people since that time. The group also applied for a permit to gather in Lafayette Park on Aug. 30. That permit was denied, as well.
The issue, Mahoney said, is definitely one of principle.
"I have an extremely difficult time with the government distinguishing between peaceful demonstrators and other people who use the park," he explained, "implying that those who engage in First Amendment activities are somehow a greater security risk.
"There is a First Amendment to protect political speech," Mahoney continued, "Although I'm not opposed to it, there's not a First Amendment to protect tour buses or throwing Frisbees."
The Christian Defense Coalition won a similar dispute with the Secret Service two years ago after agents ordered Mahoney and a small group of supporters to move from a public sidewalk in front of the Cuban Interest Section of the Swiss Embassy in Washington.
They had gathered there to pray for the safety and freedom of rescued Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez.
As the group knelt to pray, Mahoney said Secret Service agents told them, "You cannot pray here. If you do not get up and move across the street, you will be arrested." He said other protestors had been allowed to gather on the sidewalk both before and after their attempt to pray.
The next day, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an injunction ruling that the Secret Service could either allow all legal activity to continue on the sidewalk, or close it, but could not selectively restrict its use based on an individual or group's legal activities or motives for being there.
Mahoney is hoping for a similar result in Thursday's hearing.
Despite past and present disputes, the Presbyterian minister does not discount the seriousness of the government's efforts to protect the president, White House staff, and visitors. He said the solution, if the agency is telling the truth about the risks, is simple.
"If the Secret Service has true and legitimate security concerns, then the whole park should be shut down. Don't allow anyone there," Mahoney said. "But to say that peaceful demonstrators present a greater security risk than anyone else using the park is a frightening proposition."
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