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Judge rules group denied use of MECU Pavilion for protest can continue planning for event after it sues Baltimore City

A group denied use of the MECU Pavilion on Pier 6 for a protest during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting this fall sued Baltimore City and City Solicitor Jim Shea arguing its rights to freedom of speech and religion among others have been violated.

St. Michaels Media, also known as Catholic-focused news outlet Church Militant, filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court challenging the city’s decision to bar the event. While the dispute awaits a court decision, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order that allows Church Militant to continue planning for the rally.

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Organizers scheduled the event, which was to include various speakers and the praying of the rosary, to coincide with the November meeting of the Catholic bishops typically convened at the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront that overlooks the pavilion.

MECU Pavilion officials notified the group in early August that it was barred from using the facility. Shea said last week the decision was based on the likelihood for “significant disruption” due to the “characteristics of the location and the likely reaction to the planned program.” He declined to elaborate further.

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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 were made, according to the group.

Based in Michigan, Church Militant produces articles and videos about Catholic news around the world and is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic 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.

The lawsuit filed this week argues the cancellation of the event violates the group’s rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to free speech, expression of religion and assembly.

No alternative venue exists as close to the bishops’ conference as MECU Pavilion, the group argued, and the city has not presented any “factual basis” to believe the event would pose a risk of violence.

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The temporary restraining order signed Tuesday afternoon by U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander states that the city “shall not prevent St. Michael’s from conducting and making arrangements” for the rally.

Voris said was “very pleased” with the judge’s decision. Church Militant already has contacted the MECU Pavilion and provided the operators with a copy of the order, he said. Further arguments are scheduled for later this month, Voris noted.

“We feel as confident that we will prevail there as we were that we would get the restraining order granted which we did,” he said.

Voris said he has made no plans for an alternative venue if the case is not decided in his favor.

“The entire point of this is to make our presence known to the bishops,” he said. “We might as well have the rally in Detroit if we have to have it one mile away or 10 miles.”

Shea could not be reached for comment.

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. Correspondence from the city stated that a response will require more than 10 days. A representative with Church Militant said the organization was provided no written documentation notifying it of the cancellation.

In a letter to the city sent earlier this month threatening litigation, Church Militant noted that its members protested at the MECU 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.”

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