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Critic of Catholic Church alleges Baltimore’s attorney violated its free speech

Baltimore City Solicitor James L. “Jim” Shea said in a statement that the contract was canceled “because of the potential for significant disruption” and not to quell free speech or religion. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore’s chief attorney violated the constitutional rights of an organization critical of the Catholic Church by essentially preventing its members from peacefully protesting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ convention in the city this November, the group alleges in a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court.

St. Michael’s Media Inc. claims Baltimore City Solicitor James L. “Jim” Shea told the city’s events agent to cancel a contract that would have permitted the group to hold its protest at the MECU Pavilion, directly across from the bishop’s Fall General Assembly at the Waterfront Marriott Hotel scheduled for Nov. 15 to 18.

St. Michael’s is seeking a court order permitting it to stage the protest in light of what the group claims to be Shea’s violation of its constitutional rights to free speech and religious exercise. St. Michael’s also alleges that Shea, acting on the city’s behalf, violated the constitutional prohibition on governmental establishment of religion by favoring the Catholic Church over a group critical of it.

Shea said in a statement that the contract was canceled “because of the potential for significant disruption” and not to quell free speech or religion.

“The characteristics of the location and the likely reaction to the planned program prompted this action,” Shea added.

St. Michael’s has criticized the Catholic Church as corrupt, including its decades-long cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of boys in their charge.

The Ferndale, Michigan-based group stated in its complaint that it plans to hold a Nov. 16 protest at the pavilion titled “Bishops: Enough is Enough Prayer Rally.”

“St. Michael’s chose this date and location for its rally specifically because it would take place at the same time and immediately adjacent to the USCCB Fall General Assembly,” wrote the group’s attorneys, David S. Wachen, of Wachen LLC in Potomac, and Marc J. Randazza, of Randazza Legal Group PLLC in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“The purpose of the rally is to engage in protected speech criticizing elements of the power structure of the Catholic Church in a situation where the speech would reach the Church’s leadership,” the attorneys added. “The entire purpose of the Nov. 16 rally is to communicate the ideas of St. Michael’s members and attending speakers to the USCCB in a format and in a venue that they cannot ignore. Conducting the rally at a different time or in a different place would completely neuter the expressive elements of the rally – presumably, this is the reason that the lawful assembly will not be allowed without the intervention of this court.”

In advance of the rally, St. Michael’s signed a contract with Royal Farms Arena, the contracting agent, in June and paid a $3,000 deposit, according to the complaint. On Aug. 5, the agent notified St. Michael’s that the contract was canceled and directed questions to Shea, the complaint stated.

According to the complaint, Shea said he told the agent to cancel the contract based on reports that St. Michael’s posed a risk of violence based on the group’s reported ties to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. St. Michael’s leaders replied that the reports were “categorically false” and that the group had held a peaceful protest without incident when the bishops met in Baltimore in 2018.

“Well, a lot has changed in three years,” Shea responded, according to the complaint.

But St. Michael’s contended in the complaint that Shea canceled the contract after being “told by USCCB members that the content of the speech during St. Michael’s rally would be uncomfortable or offensive for the attendants at its Fall General Assembly to hear.”

The case is docketed at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore as St. Michael’s Media Inc. v. James L. Shea et al., No. 1:21-cv-02337-ELH.