U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Preachers Beat Criminal Charges, Lose Civil Case

Perhaps it was the message evangelical ministers were preaching that got them into trouble.

After all, there's something wrong about telling people "the end is coming" just as they board a train. But Don Karns and Robert Parker were not going to stop preaching just because they didn't have a permit to be on the train platform.

That was the real problem, according to the New Jersey Transit Authority. But after beating criminal charges against them, the preachers sent the state agency another message in Karns v. Shanahan.

First Amendment v. Eleventh Amendment

The transit officers were investigating reports of loud shouting when they found Karns and Parker on the platform. The ministers didn't have a permit to be there, and they refused to leave.

The ministers were arrested and charged with obstruction and defiant trespass. Karns was acquitted, and Park's conviction was reversed on appeal.

Karns and Parker then filed civil rights actions against the transit authority and the officers. They claimed violations of their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The transit authority defendants said the preachers could have applied for permits -- which were routinely granted to religious groups on a first-come, first-served basis -- but they chose not to apply. The defendants also claimed immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.

State's Sovereign Immunity

A trial judge dismissed the preachers' case, concluding the transit authority was immune under the Eleventh Amendment. A divided panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

It was a close call, however, because the appellate court had previously said the transit authority was not entitled to immunity in Fitchik v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations. But the majority said an intervening decision by the U.S. Supreme Court changed everything.

"The Supreme Court's holding in Regents of the University of California has led us to depart from the analytical framework articulated in Fitchik, and we thus 'no longer ascribe primacy to the [state-treasury] factor,'" the appeals panel said.

The judges said the courts should not simply engage in a formulaic or mechanical counting up of factors. Rather, they should weigh the strength of each individual factor in the unique factual circumstances at issue.

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