Town in federal lawsuit with street preacher
District Court rules in favor of Fort Myers Beach, case now in front of Court of Appeals
The Town of Fort Myers Beach has won the first round of a federal lawsuit by Adam Lacroix, a so-called “street preacher” who sued the town in federal court over violations he was issued in December by town code enforcement for carrying portable signs. The case is currently being appealed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The town is being represented by outside counsel – Fort Lauderdale attorney Chris Stearns.
Lacroix, who has been regularly seen in the middle of Times Square area at night on a bullhorn as part of a group of street preachers, has garnered criticism from local businessowners and visitors who believe his antics are disruptive. Lacroix often screams at crowds using graphic language. He also does so on the beach sand during the day at times.
Frequently on weekends, gatherings at Times Square involving the street preachers devolve into confrontations with passersby on Fort Myers Beach. The group, which has a YouTube page at TeamJesusPreachers, carries provocative signs and often targets scantily clad beachgoers, cigarette smokers, those drinking alcohol and tells people they are going to burn in hell. Lacroix will condemn those who use drugs and engage in other activities he believes are sinful and yells at crowds.
Plaka Restaurant owner Steve Maillakakis says the preachers have damaged his business during busy weekends by yelling at his customers. He said the preachers have been told in the past to lower the volume of their speakers by code enforcement only to turn the volume back up once they leave.
Fort Myers Beach Manager Roger Hernstadt said the preachers have been cited for the signs and is currently in consultation with town attorney John Herin Jr. about the group’s compliance with the town’s noise ordinance. Hernstadt said he has been awaiting the outcome of the current lawsuit over the town’s sign ordinance.
Maillakakis said parents are going up to the preachers and telling them “‘my child is four-years-old. I don’t want them to see this,'” Maillakakis said, “And we’re all losing business because of it.”
Maillakakis said the use of a loudspeaker by Lacroix has made the disruptions worse. Maillakakis said women in bikinis are being called names and those drinking are being called names.
“We can’t lose our important days,” Maillakakis said.
Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce President Jacqui Liszak said she has received complaints that “they are incredibly obnoxious and make people uncomfortable.”
Liszak said “they’re scaring little kids.”
During one recent speech posted online, Lacroix yelled out through a loudspeaker blared out over the beach on Lynn Hall Memorial Park, that “this world is going down in flames” and denounced homosexuality and a person who identified as a Jehovas’s Witness follower.
Lacroix is being represented by Frederick Nelson of the American Liberties Institute. A message left with Nelson wasn’t immediately returned. A message left with the voicemail of Lacroix was not returned as of press time.
Despite the litigation, Lacroix and others have continued to congregate at Times Square, regularly provoking loud arguments with beachgoers and tourists.
Maillakakis said “there has to be a limit” to what is being allowed. He believes it is a matter of disturbing the peace. Families don’t want to put up with it and listen to the diatribes, Maillakakis said.
“It’s past the point of religion. He’s calling people names. Now he has giant signs saying ‘you are all sinners. You are all going to hell.'”
The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council agreed to put Maillakakis in touch with Town of Fort Myers Beach Attorney John Herin Jr. to discuss the matter and potentially strategy for dealing with Lacroix.
Hernstadt said the town “has done what we can do subject to finding further boundaries by the court and any further brainstorming by the town attorney.”
Herin said “the action we have taken has resulted in a federal lawsuit.”
Town of Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy, who describes himself as a devout Catholic, said he opposes the methods employed by Lacroix and the preachers. “It’s getting worse,” he said.
“I don’t believe he’s entitled to ruin everyone else’s experience to further his viewpoints. I don’t believe he is right. I don’t know if there is some profit motive. He is disrupting people’s livelihoods, their businesses and their vacations that they have spent their hard-earned money to enjoy,” Murphy said.
U.S. District Court Judge Sheri Chappell, who ruled on the suit filed by Lacroix, rejected his alleged equal protection claim under the 14th Amendment, and denied arguments that the town exercised unbridled discretion.
“The Town has a total ban on portable signs. If the town permitted some types of portable signs and empowered town officials to approve of the sign, then Lacroix might have a viable claim. But neither party advances that argument and the Court will not read that into the Ordinance,” Chappell stated.
Chappell denied the claims by Lacroix that the town violated his First Amendment rights since the town’s portable sign ban was content neutral.