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Baltimore officials deny use of MECU Pavilion for protest during Catholic bishops meeting

Baltimore officials recently rejected a proposed protest scheduled for MECU Pavilion during the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, citing concerns about the potential for “significant disruption.”

The protest and prayer meeting was slated to be held by conservative Catholic news outlet Church Militant during the conference meeting in mid-November. Church leaders typically convene in the fall at the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront that overlooks the pavilion.

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Baltimore Solicitor Jim Shea issued a statement this week saying the city “exercised its right to discontinue discussions with the Church Militant about the organization’s proposed event at the City owned Pier VI in November.” The group was notified of the decision last month.

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

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Based in Michigan, Church Militant produces articles and videos about Catholic news around the world and is not affiliated with the church. Its founder, Michael Voris, says the organization defends morality. Church Militant has called global warming “garbage” and criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. And the Southern Poverty Law Center considers Church Militant a hate group for its views on LGBTQ issues.

According to a July post on Church Militant’s website, alt-right political figures Steve Bannon — for a while the CEO of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign — and Milo Yiannopoulos were scheduled to speak at the Baltimore event. Over 2,000 reservations have been made, according to the group.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Shea noted that the decision was made by Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration, not by MECU Pavilion officials. Shea said he spoke to Church Militant leaders on the phone to explain the recent decision at their request.

In an open letter posted on Church Militant’s website, the group has threatened legal action against the city, arguing that their First Amendment right to free speech has been violated by the cancellation. The letter, authored by Voris, also contends that Shea is affiliated with the Catholic church and the Democratic Party.

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“While this is still a free country, no thanks to the political party (Democrat) you personally are so wedded to, as well as a corrupt hierarchy wildly supportive of your political party, we will fight this with every means available,” the letter states.

Shea, a longtime attorney with the Venable law firm, ran for governor in 2018 as a Democrat before joining the city as solicitor this year.

The letter, first reported by Baltimore Brew, demanded Shea respond and reinstate the event by Sept. 3.

Shea said he has not responded.

Contract documents show the city has discretion to override events planned for MECU Pavilion, which sits on city property and is run by a contractor. A 2016 request for proposals for that contract allows the city to “object” to a performer if the city has a “reasonable and good faith basis” to believe the performance likely will result in damage to the facility or damage the “reputation” of the city.

According to those contract documents, the facility operator must present the names of all performers who have dates “held” at the pavilion for city approval. City officials have 48 hours to provide a written objection to the performer. If the city still objects to the performer after discussions with the venue’s operator, the operator cannot hold the event, contract documents state.

The Baltimore Sun has filed a Public Information Act request for written documentation of the city’s objection. A representative with Church Militant said no written documentation was provided notifying them of the cancellation.

Church Militant contends that Shea told the group’s leaders they were linked to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in which a mob in support of Trump rushed the building and violently clashed with police.

Church Militant called the claims “outrageous” and “slanderous.”

Asked how he reached the determination that Church Militant would present a disruption, Shea said he could not expand upon his statement and noted the group has threatened litigation.

Chieko Noguchi, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the conference had no role in deciding whether or not the Church Militant event nor any other unaffiliated event would take place in Baltimore during its gathering.

In its letter to the city, Church Militant noted that its members protested at the pavilion without incident during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ November 2018 gathering in Baltimore. A Baltimore Sun story at the time said that several hundred protesters assembled in the pavilion amid a national scandal over child sexual abuse by clergy. The group prayed and carried signs that said “The bishops knew” and “Silence Stops Now.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh was leading the city during the 2018 gathering.

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