On The Front Lines
Court Threatens Street Preacher With Arrest for Using Bible Verses to Criticize Same-Sex Marriage, Denouncing Drag Show on Social Media
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Pushing back at attempts by the courts to silence individuals whose religious views may be perceived as intolerant or hateful, The Rutherford Institute is challenging a five-year restraining order against a street preacher who has been threatened with arrest after citing Bible verses on social media to express his moral concerns about a church that endorses same-sex marriage and raising awareness about a public drag queen performance that occurred in front of children.
Warning that the ramifications of such court rulings could penalize anyone who cites a Bible verse which causes offense or ignites fears despite there being no actual threat to safety, The Rutherford Institute is asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to overturn the five-year restraining order against street preacher Rich Penkoski, denouncing it as excessive and a clear violation of the pastor’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. Institute attorneys also point out that in the absence of any actual threats by Penkoski or proof that he sought to incite violence through the use of Bible verses, the court’s rationale appears to be based solely on claims that LGBTQ leaders felt terrorized, harassed and fearful about how others might react to the Bible verses cited in the street preacher’s social media posts.
“Religious individuals have a clear First Amendment right to publicly cite Bible verses that reflect their concerns about moral issues of the day without being accused of stalking, harassing or terrorizing those who are offended by the sentiments,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This case is a foreshadowing of the government’s efforts to insulate the populace from all things that might cause offense by criminalizing nonviolent First Amendment activities (speech, thought and actions) perceived as politically incorrect.”
In 2022, street preacher Rich Penkoski used social media to express his moral and religious concerns about a church that endorses same-sex marriage and a public drag queen performance in front of children. In one of Penkoski’s posts, he shared the church’s public photo of a same-sex wedding involving leaders of an LGBTQ organization and quoted Bible verses describing God’s judgment of sin. In a second post, Penkoski criticized the church’s publicly shared photos of children celebrating Pride Month. In a third post, Penkoski weighed in on a regional effort to ban adult-oriented entertainment in public spaces. Attempting to refute what he believed were false statements by one of the leaders of the LGBTQ group who told city council that no adult-oriented entertainment, obscenity, or sexually suggestive performances had occurred at a Pride event, Penkoski posted a video clip of the LGBTQ leader’s public statement to city council along with a video and photos of a drag queen behaving in a sexually suggestive manner near children at the Pride event.
Although there was no evidence that Penkoski ever contacted, spoke to, tagged, or met the public figures leading the LGBTQ group, the trial court—based upon claims that the LGBTQ leaders felt terrorized and harassed by Penkoski’s three social media posts on religious and political issues—imposed a five-year protective order against him. Under the terms of the court’s order, which Rutherford Institute attorneys condemn as so vague and overly broad as to chill lawful First Amendment activities, Penkoski could be subject to arrest and up to one year in jail for engaging in conduct that might cause his accusers to fear for their safety, which could broadly be interpreted to prevent him from citing similar Bible verses critical of the church’s or LGBTQ group’s activities.
Affiliate attorneys Joe M. Fears and Richard D. White, Jr. with Barber & Bartz are representing Penkoski on the appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, defends individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.