A federal judge here ruled yesterday that the law U.S. Park Police have used to arrest Hare Krishnas for soliciting money and distributing literature at the Kennedy Center is unconstitutional because it violates the sect's First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion.
U.S.. District Court Judge Oliver Gasch said that because the Kennedy Center and the National Park Service had permitted the sale of souvenir programs and commemorative items in the center's "semi-public portions," the government "cannot attempt to impose an absolute ban on (the Hare Krishnas') religious activities."
As a result, Gasch dismissed criminal charges against three Hare Krishnas, Mary E. Boesewetter, Deborah J. Lynch and Anne E. Silver, who were arrested as they solicited money and passed out flyers last May and June at the performing arts center.
Gasch overturned a law that prohibited "the sale or distribution of newspapers, leaftlets and pamphlets (in) the interior of all park buildings, including . . . those portions of the Kennedy Center . . . administered by the National Park Service."
While the Kennedy Center staff oversees the performances that occur there, the Park Service controls the public areas of the building and is responsible for security.
The Park Service has said it established the anti-solicitation regulation because the Kennedy Center is a place "where an atmosphere of calm and tranquility . . . should be preserved."
But Gasch said that since the center sells programs and other items it could not restrict the Hare Krishnas' activities.
However, the judge said that since commercial transactions "are conducted from fixed locations such as sales booths, distribution of religious literature perhaps may be limited to similar locations."
He said such limitations on the Hare Krishnas' solicitations "can be imposed where access to a semi-public forum must be reconciled with the rights of other users, such as the rights of Kennedy Center patrons to be free of disruptions or intrusions that interfere with their enjoyment of a performance."
Park Service spokesman George Berklacy said that Interior Department lawyers would consider appealing the decision. The Kennedy Center said it would not comment until it has seen the ruling.