Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Laws regarding religious literature in Key West

Here at the Gospel Chapel, we want to tell the world about salvation from eternal death in Hell. We want to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ our Lord to any who will listen. We take seriously the command of Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel, baptize converts, teach them of God's Word, and make true disciples of Jesus Christ. We strive to make sure that Jesus Christ is recognized as the functioning Head of His church here in Key West. We have been blessed to meet and labor with brothers and sisters in Christ from many area churches, working together as one family in Christ to share the love of Christ and eternal life with all who will accept this gift of God by grace through faith in Jesus.

With this in mind, you can see our passion for the Lord. Mark and Caleb Caeton were out this morning near Mallory Square with our postcards (See link here for more information) to give out to any who would receive them. We were told by a friend a while back that you could pass out religious literature anywhere on public property under the protection of the Constitution. Not being a legally minded man, I thanked my friend for the information, but didn't think much about it.... until last week.

Last Tuesday, I went down to the boat docks to pass out our literature. I was there for an hour, talking to folks and handing out our postcards. Everyone was happy to have the beautiful sunset picture, and some were gracious about the message. Others didn't care for it, but any way it was received I was sure to welcome our tourist friends to Key West and bid them "Good Day" with a smile. After that first hour, I was approached by a man who said he works for the Westin resort. Evidently, the resort owns the major boat docks in town and I was on private property. If you know Key West, you would understand my mistake. Either way, I apologized for my wrong and walked away, but not before asking where the line was between Westin property and public property. I was directed to stay off Front, Duval, Greene, Kirkpatrick, and a few other streets. Now, if you know Key West at all, you will know that is pretty much where everyone is, thus limiting our literature distribution greatly. This seemed a bit extreme, but rather than continue and get in trouble, I went home and wrote to the Code Enforcement Officer, Jim Young.

My lengthy letter to Mr. Young included copies of all literature we would hand out, a story of my trouble at the Westin dock, and questions regarding free speech and literature. I just wanted to know what I could and could not do. I want to obey the law and be a good testimony for the Lord in so doing. I never got an email back, and left a phone message also for Mr. Young. That was a week ago today. I thought that a week without a response would be sufficient to say that I was trying my best, so this morning Caleb and I went together to pass out Gospel literature again. Again, many folks took the postcards while we were carefully staying on the public sidewalk and away from private property, including doorways to stores. We don't want angry shopkeepers, but people who see a lifestyle of obedience and love for our fellow man.

Caleb came and found me a short while later after being warned not to get caught. He asked what he was doing wrong and was informed that one could incur heavy fines for crossing the line between public and private property. We talked for a bit and soon we saw a truck going by that seemed to be a city truck and said, "CODE" on the side. I flagged down the driver, who told me the same story as the man at the dock. She said we were limited under the "OPC" rule, which stands for Off Premises Canvassing. This law is targeting those selling a product or other such thing, not giving away religious literature. Still, we decided we ought to go home and get it straight before we tried again.

When we arrived at the chapel, I called Jim Young's office again and left a message. 3 hours later, I tried again and Mr. Young picked up the call.  I asked very respectfully what the laws were and what I could do to obey the law. His first response was "I will not give you legal advice, you need to talk to a lawyer." I was confused as to why the code enforcement officer would refuse to tell me what streets or places were covered under  the law. I am sure that if he saw me breaking the law he would have quickly told me what the limits were and handed me a ticket. I was just trying to be preventive and submit to the laws.

I hung up the phone and wrote an email to a local pastor to ask if he knew more, or had experience with such issues. Then I prayed. I asked God to show me what was best to do. Should I continue to seek Mr. Young's advice, call a lawyer? Should I fight City Hall? Should I demand my rights to free speech and literature (I studied the case law on this last week) or would it be best to pray and wait? Maybe some would say I should continue to do what I was doing until I got a ticket, or arrested. I considered if God might be closing a door for this type of ministry. I prayed about the Great Commission, and thought about whether preaching the Gospel to every creature was better accomplished one-on-one by word of mouth. This is the best way to share the Gospel for sure, but most of these tourists will not stop to talk, but may take our postcard and read it later. I prayed, and prayed.

Then the phone rang. It was Mr. Young, and this time he sounded different. He seemed friendly and humble. He said his investigation into the laws proved that he was wrong before, and so were his officers and the man on the dock. Religious literature is covered in the law, in fact it is written in recent law as a protected form of free speech that stands as the only exception to the "Pamphleteering" or "OPC" law. Mr. Young informed me that we do not need a permit, and that he would issue a memo to all his officers to let them know that people handing out or speaking of God's Word and the Gospel in public have every right to do so.

I just wanted to share with you all how God is working in Key West, in our lives, to show Himself strong. While I prayed, I felt that God would intervene, that He would give peace even though in the flesh I was angry. I want to share God's love to others, but I wont' break the law to do so. We praise God for the answer to prayer. We still seek God's will in how to share the Gospel. We use many venues and methods to get the message out, and we thank the Lord for every chance we get to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thank you for taking the time to read, we hope you join us in our joy for the Lord. May God be praised and glorified in all we do and say.

Mark Cowperthwaite for the saints in Key West


  1. Wow, Mark! That's awesome and very encouraging. It shows you are right where you need to be! May our Lord bless your work!

  2. Bro. Again. PTL. I know you don't want pats on the back but I complement your approach here. It reminds me of Paul bringing up the issue of our goal being to live a "quiet and peacable life" and to have a good testimony with those that are without"... submitting to the powers God has placed in government. At the same time I am quieted as I think about the very clear example of the fact that here the law of our land has granted you a sort of legal causeway to do something in an area that would shut you out if given the opportunity. It is interesting to see the law protect a person... and as a result I am thankful for a God who lays down laws for our protection.