St. Louis Record

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Freedom Center of Missouri busy pursuing individual freedom and other litigation, a group director says


By Karen Kidd | Jul 1, 2019

| MorgueFile - shaka

MEXICO, Mo. – A Missouri-based freedom-advocacy center that fights for individual liberty and transparent, accountable, constitutionally-limited government is currently very busy pursuing cases against alleged government overreach, one of the group's directors said.

"That's our goal," Freedom Center of Missouri Director of Litigation Dave Roland said. "We focus on constitutional freedoms primarily. We try to aim for constitutional issues that are not focused on as much by organization such as, say, the ACLU of Missouri."

Freedom Center of Missouri has provided co-counsel with the ACLU in sunshine law cases and has been equally active in free speech cases that often attract the eye of the other organization, Roland said.

"Our focus goes a bit more further afield in that we deal with property rights cases, economic liberty cases, and sometimes we take different perspectives on first amendment cases than the ACLU would take," Roland said.

Freedom Center of Missouri's "first foray" into religious liberty litigation has been in so-call "good Samaritan" cases of people doing the right thing and finding themselves in legal trouble as a result, Roland said.

One such good Samaritan case taken up by Freedom Center of Missouri is that of the Rev. Ray Redlich of New Life Evangelistic Center and Christopher Ohnimus, who received a St. Louis police-issued city court summons for giving sandwiches to the homeless this past Halloween. Redlich and Ohnimus are challenging a city ordinance that prohibits food prepared in a home from being given to the public.

Dispositive motions are due in the Redlich/Ohnimus case next spring and Freedom Center of Missouri is gearing up to file a similar case on behalf of the unincorporated Kansas City organization Free Hot Soup Kansas City. The organization unintentionally made national news in November after a conflict with the Kansas City Health Department.

"They're a bunch of do-gooders who go around weekly providing food to people in need," Roland said. "They (the health department) not only told them they weren't allowed to do that, they confiscated the food that they had prepared for the homeless people and they poured bleach all over it so that no one could eat it."

That case has not yet been filed but it will be, Roland said.

"The issues are slightly different, more complex, than in the St. Louis case, which is causing the delay in getting that one filed," he said.

At times, the Freedom Center of Missouri has had to pull a win from a loss. An example is its backing of conservative activist Ronald John Calzone, who often testifies before the Missouri General Assembly, in his lawsuit against the Missouri Ethics Commission. Calzone is challenging the ethics commission on their interpretation of laws governing citizen, volunteer lobbyists.

Calzone's appeal is one of four Freedom Center of Missouri cases currently under consideration in the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Roland said.

"Our position there is that although courts have long held that you can regulate professional lobbyists because of the potential of corruption, or the appearance of corruption, when there's money involved, in this situation there's no money involved at all," Roland said. "Not even arguably. We're saying that where there's no money involved, there cannot be a basis for stripping someone of their first amendment protections. You cannot require them to jump through certain governmental hoops just to be able to share their ideas about public policy with legislators."

In his appeal, Calzone asked the Eighth Circuit for a permanent injunction against the Missouri Ethics Commission to prevent the Commission from enforcing its interpretation of Missouri law in ways Calzone claimed violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

A split Eighth Circuit three-judge panel in November disagreed with Calzone and affirmed a lower court's denial of the permanent injunction and ruled Calzone must fill out forms or face a fine.

However, Eighth Circuit Judge David R. Stras, in his dissent, said applying Missouri law, as interpreted by the Missouri Ethics Commission, on unpaid lobbyists who make no expenditures related to their lobbying efforts formed a "completed puzzle here [that] is more troubling than the sum of its parts."

"Although Calzone presents an as-applied challenge, which prevents us from considering other potential challengers to Missouri's law, the scope of the law is far reaching," Stras' dissent continued. "It does not appear to treat a member of a religious or civic organization who has been 'designated' to attend a 'Lobby Day' any differently from Calzone, who advocates on behalf of Missouri First. The law seemingly sweeps up all unpaid political advocacy by anyone who acts on behalf of someone else, no matter how often it occurs and regardless of its purpose."

After the November ruling and Stras' dissent, the appeals' court's 12 judges agreed to reconsider the case en banc, which it did in arguments heard in April. Roland said he expects the appeals court to issue its decision later this summer.

"That dissent prompted the entire en banc panel to review it and now we're waiting for a decision," Roland said. "That's actually a first of its kind case in the entire country."

Another case Freedom Center of Missouri is pursuing in the Eighth Circuit is that of a St. Peters woman ordered to devote a percentage of her property to lawn turf, despite her allergies to the turf. The woman, Janice Duffner, currently is facing up to $375,000 in potential civil penalties and potentially 40 years in prison, Roland said.

"We've argued that if the way she is using her property is otherwise perfectly lawful, then the city doesn't get to dictate to her what she plants in her yard," he said. "If we're not talking about a threat to public health or safety, or a plant that in itself is unlawful, then that decision has to be the homeowner's to make, not the city's."

A decision in the woman's case if expected "any day," Roland said.

Freedom Center of Missouri has been so busy with constitutional freedoms and other claims that it hasn't been able to keep its website updated but the center is keeping its focus primarily on the protection of constitutional freedoms, Roland said.

"We do not support or oppose any legislation," he said. "That's a commitment that my wife, who also is executive director, and I made early on. We want to be completely nonpartisan and that means even when it comes to weighing in pro or con on a particular bill in front of the legislature, we want to maintain complete agnosticism."

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