By Paula Schlueter Ross
The Apple of His Eye, a St. Louis-based LCMS mission society, is free to distribute religious literature at public events in the city of St. Louis, according to a U.S. District Court judge.
On June 11, Judge Henry Autrey signed a permanent order that bars the city from arresting or threatening to arrest members of The Apple of His Eye while they are handing out their literature.
The First Amendment lawsuit was filed last year after Apple of His Eye missionary Alan Butterworth and founder Steve Cohen were distributing free religious tracts in the city’s Tower Grove Park during a 2006 “gay pride” event. Both men were first told to cease literature distribution at PrideFest, and later told to vacate the premises or face arrest.
The attorney for The Apple of His Eye, Rick Nelson of the American Liberties Institute in Orlando, Fla., brought the matter to the city’s attorneys, hoping for an amicable resolution. When no progress was made, the lawsuit was filed by the mission society on May 1, 2008.
Cohen said the group “got tired of being threatened with arrest” and “just wanted to bring it to an end.” Cohen and a seminary student recently were confronted by police at two events in April — the women’s Final Four basketball tournament and opening day of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball season.
“When religious freedom is at stake,” Cohen said, “I’ve always felt that our constitutional rights here in the United States should be affirmed and upheld, and that’s what we tried to do.”
The Gospel handouts, or “broadsides” — written especially for the PrideFest event — did not mention homosexuality, but focused on the fact that “all of us are sinful. All of us fall short,” said Cohen. “But God loves us so much that — while we were yet sinners — He sent His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
“We can’t tell people how to live,” he added, “but we can tell people what Jesus did for them. And from there, the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is powerful and mighty and capable of bringing change.”
As a result of the lawsuit, the city has rescinded a part of its bylaws that bans literature distribution and is required to let police and PrideFest organizers know that handing out religious fliers is allowed.
Cohen says he is “thrilled” at the judge’s decision and will be at this year’s PrideFest, June 27-28 in St. Louis. He said he is hoping for 15 to 20 volunteers to join him.
“Going out and talking to people about Jesus is one of the best ways you learn to sharpen your own skills in personal witness,” he said, and volunteers don’t have to be Jewish. The society’s mission is to “boldly declare Y’shua (Jesus) as the Messiah for both Jews and gentiles,” and to “urgently equip the church to do the same.”
The ministry’s work “is with anybody who is unchurched and needs to hear who Jesus is,” according to Cohen.
“Our prayer is that Christians will take seriously the Great Commission and take the initiative to reach out in their own communities as opportunities become available,” he said. “We can help!”
The Apple of His Eye offers free religious handouts that congregations can print and distribute. In fact, Cohen says he will even write a Gospel tract for a specific event, if a congregation requests it, and offers free PDF copies of his book, Beginning from Jerusalem, a 156-page primer on sharing your faith with others.
His organization routinely hands out broadsides at sporting events, concerts, parades, festivals, and other public gatherings that allow it “to maximize the opportunities to reach a lot of people in a short amount of time.” Often, volunteers will begin a conversation with, “What do you think of Jesus?”
The Apple of His Eye distributed about 60,000 Gospel tracts during a recent “Taste of Chicago” event, which led to “hundreds and hundreds of conversations, and of those conversations, about 200 people gave us their names and addresses for follow-up,” Cohen said. Those contacts are forwarded to local LCMS congregations and the Jews for Jesus organization.
Posted June 17, 2009