Judge gags preacher on social media for posting Bible verses in online protest

PHOTO: CBN

Originally published in CBN News

An online Christian preacher has been ordered by a Washington County judge in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to stay silent on social media for five years after he expressed his moral and religious concerns in posts about a church that endorses same-sex marriage and a public drag queen performance in front of children.

A team of attorneys with The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organisation, has stepped in to help Rich Penkoski. They’re asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to overturn the five-year restraining order against him, 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. 

Penkoski leads the Tennessee-based online ministry Warriors for Christ.  

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Rutherford 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 harassed and fearful about how others might react to the Bible verses cited in the 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 terrorising those who are offended by the sentiments,” said constitutional attorney John W Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. 

He warned: “This case is a foreshadowing of the government’s efforts to insulate the populace from all things that might cause offense by criminalising nonviolent First Amendment activities (speech, thought, and actions) perceived as politically incorrect.” 

According to the institute, in one of Penkoski’s social media posts, he shared another church’s public photo of a same-sex wedding involving leaders of an LGBTQ organisation and quoted Bible verses describing God’s judgment of sin. 

In a second post, Penkoski criticised 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 the 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 terrorised 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.

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