The man known as Philly Jesus is suing the city and police over a December incident at Christmas Village in Center City where he claims his First Amendment and other rights were violated.
Michael Grant, 33, initially entered his complaint with Philadelphia’s federal court last week, but was unable to pay the $400 filing fee. As Grant’s attorney, Vicki Piontek, wrote in the complaint, her client is homeless and without a regular source of income.
A judge waived that filing fee, court records show, allowing Grant’s case to proceed.
According to the complaint, police arrested Grant at Christmas Village on Dec. 21, allegedly “in retaliation for the exercise” of his First Amendment rights. Grant, the suit claims, was “preaching peacefully” at the annual holiday market, and had placed a basket for donations.
Grant says in the complaint that he was holding a sign that read something to the effect of, “If you die, are you going to Heaven? Find out here.” The sign allegedly got the attention of an unknown Philadelphia police officer, who approached Grant and “glared at the sign with disapproval” before telling him to leave the area and “stop preaching.”
Grant says in the suit that he “asserted his right to remain in the area” and to “evangelize and to exercise his First Amendment rights” in the space.
Two police officers then allegedly “dragged [Grant] across the street,” where he says he was handcuffed and held for about a half-hour. Grant’s complaint claims he was later issued a citation for “failure to disperse.”
The incident, Grant’s suit claims, caused him to sustain “pain and emotional distress, financial losses, and a violation to his right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.” He is seeking unspecified damages.
Grant is a recovering heroin addict who began walking the streets of Philadelphia while dressed as Jesus in 2014. He made headlines in 2016, when he was found guilty of defiant trespass after he refused to leave a Center City Apple store.
Grant’s attorney in that case, Brian Zeiger, said the street preacher believed he was being asked to leave the store because of his expression of his religious beliefs, and that his protestations would be covered under the First Amendment, according to an Inquirer report.
“I forgive them for trespassing against me,” Grant said at the time.
The city declined to comment further.