7th Circuit: City’s litigation position on proselytizers’ rights is not an official policy for Sec. 1983 Liability

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Teesdale v. City of Chicago, (7th Cir., Aug. 10, 2012), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a suit brought by a group from a nearby Baptist church that sought to proselytize for several years at the annual festival of Chicago’s St. Symphorosa Catholic Church. In the case, the district court ruled that plaintiffs’ 1st Amendment rights were threatened by an official city policy that St. Symphorosa could exclude plaintiffs from the public streets on which the festival was held. (See prior posting.) The 7th Circuit agreed that the city’s position was unsupportable, but concluded that since it was merely a legal argument taken in litigation, the city’s position does not amount to an “official policy” that gives rise to liability under 42 USC Sec. 1983:

We acknowledge the great importance that our society accords to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion, and that the plaintiffs’ legitimate rights to such freedoms are to be respected. Like any other member of the public, the plaintiffs can exercise their rights at future public festivals, subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. But under the particular facts of this case, there is no evidence of an official City policy that threatens the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, giving rise to municipal liability and entitling the plaintiffs to a declaratory judgment. A mere legal pleading or a litigating position, with nothing more, is insufficient to constitute an official policy under Monell. Without such an official policy, these plaintiffs do not have standing to obtain the declaratory judgment.