Spirit of the Environment, an eastern-philosophical-based organization that promotes Bhakti-Yoga teachings and environmental sustainability, may once again sell t-shirts and pass out literature at San Diego's most popular tourist destinations and public parks, ruled a federal judge on December 23.
The nonprofit religious organization, also known as Audarya, sued the San Diego Police Department on December 14 after the department's licensing division threatened to fine the group and its members for selling its merchandise on public land without first obtaining a "peddler's permit." Doing so, according to the complaint, violated the group's First Amendment right to free speech. Days after filing the lawsuit, United States District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo granted a temporary restraining order.
Spirit of the Environment, also known as Audarya, was formed in 1986. The organization operates three ecologically sustainable retreats in Mendocino County, North Carolina, and a 150-acre community in Costa Rica. Since 1998, members of the organization have sold merchandise outside the San Diego Zoo, near Old Town, and at Pacific Beach Park, among other places. Since that time members have obtained park-use permits from the city. Members have not, however, been required to apply for the more expensive and administratively burdensome peddler's permits. But that changed in June 2014 when officers from the San Diego Police Department's licensing department informed the group of the new requirement.
Shortly after, attorneys for the Spirit of the Environment contacted the city attorney's office and attempted to negotiate with the licensing department. Negotiations were unsuccessful. The organization was told members would be charged with misdemeanors if they were caught pushing their merchandise.
And while a temporary restraining order has been granted, the larger question of whether the city and its police department can prohibit a religious-based group from promoting its message through the sale of t-shirts and from passing out free pamphlets moves forward.
The organization argues that doing so will hinder them from exercising their rights and simultaneously give the San Diego Police Department authority to decide who has a right to free speech.
"The peddler's permit ordinance grants power to municipal officials to make discretionary determinations about the qualifications of [Spirit of the Environment] representatives, specifically giving police officers the power to determine whether a particular activity 'shall include some element of trickery, fraud or deceit,'" reads the complaint. "A police officer could deny [Spirit of the Environment] a permit because he or she disagreed with [the group's] belief system, and thought the public needed to be protected from [Spirit of the Environment].