A constitutional attorney is sounding the alarm about a case he says could have sweeping religious liberty ramifications.
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John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, said his client, Rich Penkoski, was slapped with a five-year restraining order that prevents him from protesting online or in person the activities of an LGBT organization in Oklahoma.
As CBN News previously reported, the situation unfolded after the preacher posted his moral and religious concerns online, expressing his beliefs about a church that purportedly supported same-sex marriage and a drag queen performance in front of kids.
Penkoski also reportedly posted on Facebook about a lesbian couple’s wedding ceremony, sharing a church’s public picture of the gay nuptials; one of the women is allegedly the executive board president for Oklahomans for Equality Bartlesville.
Romans 1:32 was allegedly shared along with that posting. This Scripture reads (ESV): “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
As The Christian Post noted, Matthew 18:6 was also shared, which proclaims, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
The lesbian couple reportedly sought a restraining order over the assertion the verses and postings were threatening, though Penkoski has denied that claim. A five-year protective order was granted by a judge after the couple expressed fears over their safety.
The ruling found, according to court documents, Penkoski “in a knowing and willful manner, conducted a pattern of conduct which a reasonable person would believe to be harassment and would therefore suffer substantial emotional distress. And it has actually caused substantial [emotional] distress to the plaintiffs in this case.”
Whitehead believes this order runs afoul of the First Amendment and is asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to overturn it.
“He can be put in jail, fined, taken away if he says anything in terms of Bible verses or anything dealing with these LGBT people that felt threatened by one of the Bible verses,” Whitehead said. “He never approached anybody physically or contacted them directly. He just posted on social media.”
As a result, Penkoski is reportedly precluded from posting similar messages during the next five years — and Whitehead said he’s deeply concerned about the impact of the legal dispute.
“This is a very important case,” he said. “When he contacted me and I looked at the facts, I said, ‘Whoa. In America, by quoting Jesus Christ, you can get a five-year restraining order and put in jail if you speak about Jesus?'”
Whitehead said cases like this are “very rare,” and said he’s not seen one quite like Penkoski’s plight.
“This is the first time I’ve actually seen somebody quoting Jesus Christ, and that being considered a crime,” he said, noting he’s been warning for years about where free speech violations could lead. “Now the question is, are we gonna give into this or are we gonna fight it?”
Whitehead said The Rutherford Institute fights for “free speech across the board, no matter who you are” and said people have the right to express their beliefs.
“This guy did not threaten anybody,” he said. “He did not walk up to [them], he did not meet [them]. He did not point a finger,” he said. “He just posted something on social.”
Whitehead said he’s hoping the appeal helps “set this straight” and return Penkoski’s free speech. Even if the appeal fails, he has no plans of stopping efforts to right what he believes is a wrong.
“If they decide they don’t want to back us up, it’ll be appealed further up,” he said. “We’ll see how far it goes … but we’re willing to fight all the way.”
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