- The Washington Times
Friday, December 6, 2019

A judge has dropped charges against a Baptist pastor arrested at a Drag Queen Story Hour for refusing to move to a protest zone, saying the police order violated his First Amendment rights.

Afshin Yaghtin, a pastor at the New Covenant Church in Spokane, was arrested June 15 for obstructing police when he refused to move to a designated zone outside the South Hill library branch, which hosted the children’s readings by local drag queens.

In her ruling, however, Spokane Municipal Court Judge Tracy A. Staab said that while Mr. Yaghtin told officers he disagreed with the event, he had not engaged in any sort of protest activity, such as waving signs, ringing cowbells or shouting chants.

“Unfortunately, the scope of the protest zones was expanded to include anyone attending the event who had an opinion about the event, regardless of whether they were protesting or creating a disturbance,” said the judge’s Dec. 2 order. “Although Mr. Yaghtin was not protesting, he made comments to police that suggested that he disagreed with the sponsored event.”

She concluded that “because the arrest for obstructing cannot be separated from Mr. Yaghtin’s speech, the evidence is insufficient as a matter of law to support the charge of obstructing.”

The Pacific Justice Institute, which represented Mr. Yaghtin, said that he went to observe the widely promoted Father’s Day weekend reading, which drew noisy crowds of protesters and counter-protesters.

Police kept the opposing groups on opposite sides of the street, but Mr. Yaghtin objected when he saw that supporters of the story hour were allowed to demonstrate near the library, while opponents were kept further away.

“Pastor Yaghtin was arrested for questioning the police’s favorable treatment of supporters and unfavorable treatment of anyone they perceived to be non-supportive and for refusing to move to the ‘protester’ zone after being denied entry into the library,” said the institute, a Sacramento-based legal-defense organization specializing in religious-freedom cases.

Institute attorney Jorge A. Ramos, who represented the pastor, called the ruling “an enormous victory for the freedom of conscience.”

“The prosecution refused to acknowledge law enforcement’s overreach by separating and even barring people from entry into the library based on their views,” said Mr. Ramos in a statement. “We are thankful justice prevailed and Pastor Yaghtin can continue to shepherd his community with confidence.”

He said that the Spokane Prosecuting Attorney’s office has indicated it plans to file for reconsideration of the decision. The Washington Times has reached out to Spokane officials for comment.

In a Facebook post, Mr. Yaghtin called the prosecutors “relentless,” adding, “They have a political agenda. Please be in prayer for their plans to continue to be thwarted at every turn.”

The Spokane Public Library advertised the Drag Queen Story Hour with a Facebook notice saying, “Join us for a special sparkly edition of storytime! We will share stories of identity and inclusion and celebrate creativity with a craft.”

Mr. Yaghtin, the only person arrested at the event, posted a $1,000 bond after his arrest, according to KREM2 in Spokane, which posted video of the protest.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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