Street preacher arrested in Toronto – Freedom of expression or disturbing the peace?

July 10, 2019 – Street preacher David Lynn appeared in court yesterday. The charges have been put off until August 7. Lynn left the courthouse to applause from supporters. Standing on a step he told the cheering crowd, “I’m here because of an unjust arrest for exercising my freedom of speech.” Lynn was arrested last month for disturbing the peace in Toronto’s Gay Village in the Church-Wellesley area. 

Is it a case of freedom of expression or disturbing the peace?

News reports and social media posts show videos of police waiting patiently for Lynn to first give up his megaphone, and then trying to persuade him to tone down his message. Protestors begin to gather as Lynn yells, “I’m here to tell you today that you deserve respect. Every person is deserving of respect.” But respect was nowhere to be found as the chaos gets louder and each side is heard hurling insults at the other – all claiming unfair treatment in back and forth shouting matches. 

Tensions eventually reach a boiling point, and Lynn is arrested.

It was one stop on Lynn’s seven-day journey through different Toronto neighbourhoods to “share the Gospel,” as he sees it. David Lynn is with Christ’s Forgiveness Ministries – a group that is set up to preach seven days a week at Yonge and Dundas Square in downtown Toronto.

Lynn told Context, “The police should have protected me and allowed me to exercise my freedom of speech.” He said, it doesn’t matter what someone is sharing in the public square, Lynn adds, “They should be protected under the law to exercise their freedoms, and police should be neutral, unless it gets violent. Our team never laid a hand on anybody, but I was arrested.”

In a Global News report from the Village, Adrian Gabriel offers a voice rarely heard in such confrontations: “I totally identify with the [gay] community, but I also identify with Mr. Lynn and his right to his freedom of expression. As a member of the [gay] community, and as someone who identifies as Christian, I’m very conflicted with it all.”  

After several conversations with police, Lynn was eventually handcuffed and is seen in the video being taken away by police officers. It is an experience that still confounds him, “My rights were violated. I believe they [police] have to tell me in advance before they put on the cuffs. That whole period that you saw in the video, nobody was telling me anything. They eventually did tell me when I was being thrown into the police cruiser,” Lynn said. Police charged him with disturbing the peace.

Another popular open-air preacher, Erik Fountas, also preaches in Toronto, also at Yonge and Dundas Square. Fountas has even been beaten by passersby, but he keeps on preaching, only now, he says, his approach is more loving and less confrontational. Fountas told Context, “I hope something good comes of this.”

But Fountas wonders if Lynn’s most recent arrest will set a precedent for open-air preaching in the GTA. “I don’t know what God told him to do, that’s between him and God. Any type of evangelism in that community has to come from God. When you are right in the Village – you have to have wisdom.”

Barry Bussey is the director of legal affairs at the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. He says, “There is a new normal where Christian pastors are preaching ‘heresy’ in the minds of the world, and are vilified for it.” There is no longer a marketplace of ideas he says, “but the enforcement of one ‘true’ ideology. We see it coming out in spades: the Canada Summer Jobs issue, the Quebec banning of religious symbols legislation, the Ontario Court of Appeal [finding] against Christian physicians, and the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions against TWU.”

On the issue of preaching in the public square though, Bussey is cautious. “Street preachers throughout the years have gotten on people’s nerves.” John the Baptist is the most well-known to Christians, Bussey says, “And it did not turn out so well for him, either. Whenever we do not want to hear a message we have a choice: shun it and walk on, engage with the person and try to reason, or try to shut him down.” Added Bussey.

And shut him down they did. 

The complete hour-and-45-minute YouTube video has reached almost 200,000 people. Meanwhile, Lynn has started a GoFundMe campaign to help with his legal fees. It has raised over half of its $100,000 goal.

In another video released yesterday (July 10, 2019) by Christ’s Forgiveness Ministries after Lynn’s court appearance, about 15 minutes into the 20 minute video things get heated again when a man with a tape recorder asks Lynn what he said to a lesbian woman last month during the clash. Lynn refuses to answer any questions and the shouting begins again.

Lynn stands silent as a Global news reporter asks his lawyer, Carol Cross, what his defence is, “My client has a right in this country to freedom of expression, and to freedom of religion. He also has a right not to be charged contrary to the criminal code. All he was doing was standing on the street preaching.” Said Cross. Pressed by the man with the tape recorder about the incident with the woman she says, “There is no record of that.”

Lynn will be back in court on August 7. He reiterated his defence telling the crowd of supporters, “This court appearance is, to me, a travesty, it’s a shame; because Canadians are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as a minister I’m protected under section 176 of the criminal code. The UN says we have human rights, the Ontario human rights act also gives us rights. My rights were taken away simply because I’m a Christian, and I preach that God loves you.”

~With files from Hannah Vanderkooy

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