Walworth County Fair officials refuse to allow an Illinois-based Catholic evangelical group to apply for and reserve an informational booth for a second consecutive year unless the group tempers its pro-life message and display.
That’s not going to happen, said attorneys for Peter’s Net, a non-profit group dedicated to spreading knowledge about the Catholic faith, including pro-life information targeting teenage girls.
“Our clients don’t intend to moderate their message, which is a Catholic message, including, amongst all other teachings of the Catholic Church, a pro-life message,” said Peter Breen, executive director and senior legal counsel of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society.
Breen said the fair’s refusal to allow Peter’s Net’s application amounts to unlawful discrimination against religious speech under Wisconsin’s Equal Rights Programs statutes, which prohibit discrimination based on a person’s creed, and is a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act.
A single, verified complaint in 2013 claiming booth volunteers gave a 7-year-old boy a two-inch plastic figure of an unborn baby in a plastic bag containing information cards on abortion and fetal development fueled the refusal by fair officials to allow Peter’s Net to return in 2014, according to information in a Jan. 29 letter from Breen in response to the Walworth County Agricultural Society Inc., which operates the annual fair near Elkhorn.
In addition, fair officials cited other, unspecified negative comments, a lack of available booth space for 2014 and duplication of exhibits involving a fetal display in an unrelated crisis pregnancy hotline booth in its refusal.
Brookfield attorney Jerome Buting, a co-counsel for the Thomas More Society, said the reasons for denial are “unpersuasive” and meant to conceal true reasons for the denial that amount to “unlawful discrimination against the group’s religious speech.”
Fair refuses comment
Fair spokesperson Susan Pruessing refused comment on the refusal and directed questions to the fair’s legal counsel, Elkhorn attorney Anthony Coletti.
Coletti did not return calls from the Catholic Herald seeking comment. A person in Coletti’s office said he was involved in a trial.
Specific conditions being proposed by Walworth County Fair officials regarding Peter’s Net return have not been released, Breen said late Friday.
“As we sit and wait patiently for the attorney for the county fair to get back to us after he finishes his trial, we don’t intend to allow our (Peter’s Net) message or activities to be curtailed,” Breen said.
But Breen said Peter’s Net is running up against a March 1 deadline when new applicants are allowed to take over booths occupied in previous years.
“We want to make sure we have our same booth, which was a good spot,” Breen said.
The Thomas More Society is a public interest law firm, practicing in all 50 states, with a focus on defending and promoting life, marriage and religious liberty, Breen said.
The legal group currently has a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking reversal of a lower court decision denying Autocam, a Catholic-owned company in Michigan, protection from a federal Health and Human Service Department mandate within the Affordable Health Care Act requiring employee health insurance coverage for birth control, including abortion-causing drugs.
The petition is on hold pending the Supreme Court’s review of similar cases involving the Christian-owned Hobby Lobby Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania firm run by Mennonites.
Arguments in those cases get underway on March 25, ironically the Feast of the Annunciation, with a decision expected in June.
One ‘heckler’ won’t stop group
Breen said he does not intend to allow a complaint from one “heckler” at the Walworth County Fair to prevent Peter’s Net from “doing and saying what is right.”
Paula Emmerth, executive director of Peter’s Net, said the 2013 complaint involved the mother of a 7-year-old boy, who had attended the fair with another adult.
According to the complaint, the woman said Peter’s Net “ruined her son’s life” when a booth attendant gave him, as a game prize, a two-inch, pink plastic model of a 11-12 week old unborn baby contained in a small plastic bag with informational cards detailing fetal development and commenting on abortion.
The woman, according to Breen’s Jan. 29 response letter, said she convinced fair officials not to allow Peter’s Net to return in 2014 “and gloated several times ‘I got you kicked out.’”
Emmerth told the Catholic Herald the so-called “baby in a bag” items were not given out as game prizes, but handed to older fair patrons for informational purposes.
“It wasn’t a prize at all, but someone might have put one in a bag with all the other stuff a person puts in bags that are handed to them at county fairs, conventions and other events,” Emmerth said. “A 7-year-old boy is not the target who we want to have that baby in a bag. We would like to place it with a teenage girl. That’s who we encourage to learn that information.”
The bags containing the plastic babies, and other fetal items, were located on a counter in the front of the Peter’s Net booth along with a fetal model capable of being held by fair patrons.
A number of colorful cups sat on a counter near the rear of the booth. The cups are part of a children’s ball-toss game offering religious items as prizes.
The booth also included a sacramental display along with other items related to the Catholic faith, including a large crucifix.
Peter’s Net evangelizes at fairs
Emmerth said Peter’s Net began in 2009 as an outreach to attract parishioners to a new Catholic church in Antioch, Ill.
Peter’s Net informs fair patrons of Catholic Church teachings and practices, the locations of nearby Catholic parishes and offers literature on the church’s pro-life teachings, the Nicene Creed and the papacy, along with other giveaways.
The booth sells crucifixes, rosaries, holy cards and pictures of Mary and other saints.
“Pro-life activities are just a part, albeit a popular part, of our display. People don’t have to stop at our booth. We don’t get in their face,” Emmerth said.
In 2013, Emmerth said Peter’s Net set up displays at six county fairs including three in Illinois and Walworth, Racine and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin.
No complaints from Kenosha’s fair
Peter’s Net booth caused no complaints in Kenosha County the past two years, said Kenosha County Fair secretary Jo Weidman.
“They are in our commercial building, about halfway through the building. No one has ever come to the fair office or went to the director to complain about them,” Weidman said. “Just down from Peter’s Net booth is a booth from Wisconsin Right to Life and they’ve been here for years with no problems.”
Weidman said she’s seen the Peter’s Net display, including the pro-life information, and doesn’t see the booth as offensive.
“If you are offended by it, don’t stand there and look at it. Just move on,” Weidman said. “They (Peter’s Net) pay their money like anyone else, whether they are selling tomatoes or whatever.”
Emmerth said Fr. Oriol Regales, associate pastor at St. Patrick Parish, Elkhorn, observed the booth at the Walworth County Fair and gave it his blessing.
Fr. Regales could not immediately be reached by the Catholic Herald for comment.
Emmerth said Walworth County initially rejected Peter’s Net’s application for the 2013 fair, citing no available booth space, but relented after she threatened legal action.
“We’ve done a lot of county fairs and there is always booth space,” Emmerth said. “I told the Walworth County Fair officials in 2013 I thought our application rejection was discrimination. They called back an hour later and said they had space. They never gave me a reason for the initial rejection.”
The group was not allowed to return to the Lake County Fair in Illinois at one point based on false reports the booth contained graphic displays of abortions, but was later reinstated with help from the Thomas More Society.
Emmerth said concerns about duplication of exhibits at the Walworth County Fair don’t hold water.
“There is one other Catholic booth and they sell cream puffs, but don’t evangelize,” Emmerth said. “At any county fair there are all kinds of duplications of everything. There are 15 corn dog stands, three fried cheese curd booths, two gyros booths and 20 cotton candy vendors.”
Emmerth said county fairs are political environments with most containing booths from the Democratic and Republican parties and booths raising awareness, and opposing views of societal issues such as abortion.
Still, Emmerth said she feels comfortable in the county fair setting.
“You don’t feel out of your element at a fair,” she said. “It’s a place where people expect to be invited to listen to something.”
Hostility toward religion
Emmerth said she isn’t sure of the real reason Peter’s Net is not being allowed to apply for the 2014 fair in Walworth County.
“Maybe they don’t want a Catholic presence. Maybe because we are out-of-towners, they don’t want us there. It would all be speculation on my part. All I know is they don’t want us there,” Emmerth said. “As the country becomes more secular, we’ve noticed in the six years we’ve been doing county fairs that the public has become more hostile in the presence of religion.
“There is a very successful campaign out there to say we (religious groups) have no place in public events. We have to be free in this country to exercise our right to be able to show the truth of the church and do it in a loving way. But it’s becoming a battle for the church to even be present.”
Breen said the situation facing Peter’s Net is indicative of a nationwide hostility toward religious liberty by many mainstream politicians and governments.
“The threats to religious liberty are not decreasing,” Breen said.