Since 2014, Gail Blair, a blind woman and former nurse, has enjoyed strolling through Wilcox Park in Westerly, Rhode Island. Located across the street from her home, the well-attended public park offers a safe and convenient environment for her.
But on June 24, 2019, Blair was banned from the park, as well as the city’s public library, for two years.
The Memorial and Library Association—the organization that manages the park and the library—had contacted law enforcement to report that Blair, a Christian, was trespassing on the park and “accosting” other patrons by “stopping” and “giving them religious pamphlets,” according to a police report. The Association also accused Blair of littering in the park because the pamphlets she handed out were sometimes discarded on the grounds by other patrons.
But Blair, 66, says she has never stopped anyone in the park by physical means.
“That would not be consistent with the peaceful ministry practiced and preached by Jesus,” she says. “In addition, I am a blind woman in her sixties. Physically accosting persons would be rather dangerous, had I the means to do it at all.”
In describing her evangelistic efforts, Blair says she follows the advice of the Pocket Testament League by “simply offer[ing] … a Gospel of John, the Word of God. No arguing.”
“From time to time I attempt to start a conversation with passersby, and if they are willing, I offer them a copy of the Gospel of John and explain my beliefs,” she says. “I have had many positive interactions with men and women that I’ve met in this way.”
And on the charge of littering, Blair argues that she should not be held accountable for the actions of others.
Even so, she offered to pay the Association a dollar for every copy of the Gospel found on park grounds and returned to her, but the offer was “rejected without any discussion, counteroffer or accommodation,” Blair says.
A couple of weeks later, Blair’s church held a vacation Bible school event for the community in Wilcox Park. Since she had previously committed to volunteering at the event, she attended with at least six other members of her church. When she returned home, she received a phone call from the Westerly Police Department informing her that she had trespassed and threatening to arrest her if she entered the park or the library again.
As no one else from her church received a call from the police, Blair is concerned that the Association is “watching” her and “waiting for [her] to step foot into the park or library.”
On June 16, First Liberty Institute and William Wray Jr., an attorney at Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C., filed a discrimination complaint on Blair’s behalf with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights against the Association.
“Banning a blind woman from entering a public park simply because she offers people she meets religious material is outrageous and discriminatory,” says Jeremy Dys, special counsel for Litigation and Communications at First Liberty Institute. “No government entity should ban anyone—let alone a gentle, blind woman—for simply carrying on conversations about her faith and giving them a copy of the Gospel of John in a public park.”
The complaint requests intervention by the Commission in the form of requiring the Association to make amends for their “unlawful discrimination.” It also requests that the Association permit Blair to return to the park and library, making use of all their accommodations and services, including “peaceful, civil and non-confrontational conversations about Jesus.”