Published February 10, 2010
Imagine getting arrested for just striking up a conversation about religion in public.
That’s what happened to California resident Matthew Snatchko in 2006 when the youth pastor initiated a conversation about God with three shoppers at the Roseville Galleria mall.
The women gave Snatchko permission to broach the subject, but a nearby store employee said they "looked nervous," so he ordered the evangelist to leave. After Snatchko refused, mall security arrested him.
"He was put in handcuffs and hauled down to the mall’s security station and later booked at the local jail," said Snatchko’s attorney Matthew McReynolds of the Pacific Justice Institute, a legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom.
Snatchko was later released and never charged with a crime, but he and the Justice Institute decided to challenge the constitutionality of Roseville Galleria's restrictions on conversations about topics such as religion and politics.
"He wanted to make sure that neither he nor anybody else got harassed again at this mall or the 55 other malls this company owns throughout the United States," said McReynolds.
In 2008, a California superior court ruled that the mall's ban on controversial conversations with strangers didn’t violate freedom of speech.
But late last month Snatchko and the Justice Institute appealed to the state’s 3rd Appellate District in Sacramento. All parties in the case are now waiting for the court to schedule a date for oral arguments or issue a ruling.
Katie Dickey, spokeswoman for the Westfield Corporation, which owns the mall, would not comment on the case but issued a company statement saying that "everyone — regardless of race, color, creed, gender or religious belief — is welcome at our shopping centers."
Court documents claim that Westfield’s policy simply limits activities that have a "political, religious or other noncommercial purpose" to designated areas within the mall, in order to "minimize congestion." Speakers must submit a written application at least four days in advance. Access to the designated areas is then awarded on a "first come, first selected" basis.
Westfield argues in the court documents that mall security guards warned Snatchko on a number of occasions that he was violating the mall's Courtesy Guidelines by discussing religion with strangers. During one of his visits, guards even gave him a copy of the guidelines, but Snatchko continued striking up the same conversations without applying for a permit or sticking to the designated areas.
"By roaming the mall and randomly approaching other mall visitors, plaintiff effectively circumvents any attempt by Westfield to reasonably regulate his expressive activities in the mall’s common areas," the court document reads.
McReynolds confirmed Snatchko had been given the Courtesy Guidelines prior to his arrest but said the pastor "believed he was complying with them, and that they were being misinterpreted by the security guards who accused him of 'soliticing,' even though he was not selling anything."
McReynolds added that the mall has no right to regulate the kind of speech Snatchko was initiating.
"He’s never pushy, he doesn’t haul out the megaphone or large placards or anything like that -- he just asks people if they mind talking to him about issues of faith,” Snatchko said.
But California-based constitutional attorney Bo Links says the mall's restrictions are appropriate and fall within state guidelines.
"Their rules appear to be content-neutral, reasonable time, place and manner restrictions which are allowed," Links told FoxNews.com. "The fellow who was arrested clearly has free speech rights, and those rights apply to a shopping mall, but they're subject to reasonable regulation such as what the shopping mall seems to have had in place."
"It’s obviously a sensitive issue," he added, "but the shopping mall has a right to protect the people who are leasing stores and make sure there’s order in the marketplace and there was a way for this fellow to proselytize if he wanted to proselytize, he just didn’t want to do it the way the mall set it up."
But constitutional attorney John Eastman says that "to require a permit to even speak about your religious faith to anybody in the mall starts looking like it's unreasonable and might well be unconstitutional."
Eastman, a professor at California's Chapman University School of Law, says because Snatchko was seemingly engaged in a private conversation and not a public address, his speech would not have violated mall rules were it not for its content.
"There’s a decent argument that if the mall is not consistently applying this to all kinds of speech but is targeting religious speech or political speech then it is a content-based restriction ... and a content-based restriction like that would be unconstitutional," he told FoxNews.com.
McReynolds calls the incident a "national issue," especially because Westfield owns malls all over the country, but he says California is the best place to tackle it.
"Out here in California, because of the way our state constitution words its own free-speech clause, it’s been extended beyond the realm of just government property to large public venues like shopping malls."
Eastman warns that even if Snatchko wins his case, people outside of the state of California could find themselves in the same predicament.
"In other states, unless they’ve take the step in interpreting their own constitution that California took ... those malls are going to be treated as private property where they’ll have more control over the people who enter onto their property and a greater ability to set rules like these."
McReynolds said the ban is a "don’t talk to strangers" rule for adults. "We think that’s beyond the pale of what the constitution allows and what free speech allows in this country and certainly in the state of California."