By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – Maryland evangelist Pierre Bynum said he will return to the Capitol to lead tourists in prayer aimed at the government, after a federal judge this week upheld his First Amendment right to do so.
The Waldorf resident sued Capitol Police after they threatened to arrest him in November 1996 for bowing his head, closing his eyes and clasping hands in prayer with a group of others in the Capitol, which police said was a form of demonstration.
“We are definitely going to be going back and we are certainly glad we will be able to go without fear of arrest,” Bynum said. “God knows we need prayer for our country.”
Capitol Police did not return phone calls after two days seeking comment on how they plan to respond to the court ruling or to another appearance by Bynum.
“I hope it is not appealed,” Bynum said. “It kind of gives people a little benchmark and the confidence that the Constitution is still alive and still respected.”
U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled Monday that while the Capitol Police regulation against demonstrations is justified to prevent disruptive conduct in the Capitol, Bynum’s action was in no way disruptive.
“It was never about trying to push the envelope,” said Bynum’s lawyer, James Henderson, of the American Center for Law and Justice. “It was about being surprised because he was doing something he didn’t see anything wrong with.”
Henderson said the Capitol Police tried to justify their action by claiming that they were going to treat anything that would draw attention to individuals as a demonstration. “The judge didn’t buy it,” he said.
Bynum said he knows of many Capitol prayer groups that have had the same treatment at the hands of police, and that they will likely return. He thinks police will adhere to the ruling, even though he acknowledges that “malicious groups could take advantage of this.”
But Bynum, 51, said the scarier thought is the possibility that “across the country, state officials are treating prayer and religious expression as something to be controlled and restrained.”
The former Waldorf Christian Assembly pastor said he is just happy he gets to return to the Capitol, which he plans to do by fall at the latest. He said he plans a 40-day prayer vigil, similar to the one that his group was in the middle of when he was threatened with arrest in 1996.
During that vigil, he said, groups from area churches had one- to two-hour tours that were sponsored by the Capitol Hill Prayer Alert, a Christian ministry that he now leads. The tour groups went to different parts of the Capitol and discussed items there that depict the religious heritage of America, occasionally stopping along the way to pray as a group.
Bynum said that not having the chance to learn about the religious foundation in the country would be unfortunate.
“If it had turned out the other way it would have been an extremely sad day in America,” he said.
-30- CNS 04-05-00