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Man says church outburst was free speech
State Supreme Court hears arguments over 2014 dispute at 12Stone Church
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Assistant Solicitor Daniel Sanmiguel speaks Monday at the Georgia Supreme Court during an appeal by David Justin Freeman of a disorderly conduct conviction stemming from a church outburst. - photo by Nick Watson

ATLANTA — After David Justin Freeman raised his hand, he decided to give one finger.

“When (12Stone pastor Jason Berry) refused to accept the interjection, I silently gave him a middle finger, because it was the only hand gesture that I could think of off the top of my head to give a quiet objection without disrupting the church service,” he said.

Freeman’s finger, his subsequent speech about not sending children to public schools and his disorderly conduct conviction were the subject of Georgia Supreme Court oral arguments Monday.

Freeman was charged with disorderly conduct Aug. 3, 2014, after an outburst at 12Stone church in Flowery Branch. He argued his speech is protected by the First Amendment and the disorderly conduct statute is vague and overbroad.

A bible study teacher, volunteer minister and home schooling father, Freeman attended the church when Berry began a prayer for teachers in the congregation.

Freeman told the court Monday that he felt Berry was “praising the public schools in spite of the erroneous things that they’re doing” and “making a mockery of children who are struggling in these schools.”

“As someone who ministers to the youth, it’s my responsibility to defend them from being openly mocked in a church service,” he said.

Berry and 12Stone officials did not return calls for comment last week.

The Hall County Solicitor’s Office argued Berry was frightened by Freeman’s demeanor.

“I shouted over the large congregation, ‘It’s your responsibility to raise your own children, and it is a sin to give them to a godless government,’” Freeman said Monday after he attempted to register his objection.

According to the court summary, Berry testified at trial that Freeman shouted, “Don’t send your kids to the evil public schools. Don’t let Satan or the devil raise your kids.”

In his argument, Freeman contended the terms “tumultuous” and “reasonable fear” used in the disorderly conduct statute are not well-defined.

“The state does not have a right or an interest to enter churches and stop ministers from addressing their congregations in compliance with the rules of the church, regardless of whether or not the church’s pastor is pleased by the message,” Freeman wrote in his court briefs.

Assistant Solicitor Daniel Sanmiguel argued the case centers around “conduct, not speech,” as justices launched a number of hypotheticals.

Justice David Nahmias asked about a person “speaking in tongues” and turning toward a neighbor, but Sanmiguel continued to point to the totality of the circumstances.

The circumstances, Sanmiguel said, included the loud volume of Freeman’s speech and his facial expression.

“I’m not advocating that we outlaw facial expressions or that we prosecute someone based solely on facial expression. I’m advocating that based on the totality of these circumstances, it was tumultuous behavior that placed the pastor in reasonable fear for his life, limb or safety,” he said.

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