A blind Rhode Island woman filed a charge of religious discrimination with the state Commission for Human Rights Tuesday after a local park banned her from the premises for two years and threatened her with arrest for having conversations with patrons about Jesus.
Gail Blair, who is blind from a genetic condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, says in the discrimination charge she was never combative and never argued with anyone who wanted to end the conversation in Wilcox Park in Westerly, R.I. She also says she didn’t follow people.
Blair handed a copy of the Gospel of John to those who talked with her.
Blair filed the discrimination charge against The Memorial and Library Association, which manages Wilcox Park and Westerly Public Library in Westerly, R.I. She was banned from the adjacent library even though she says she never had a conversation with any strangers in the building about Christ.
Blair is claiming “unlawful discrimination … on the basis of my disability and my religious beliefs.”
“I respectfully request that the Commission intercede and require the Memorial and Library Association to make amends for their unlawful discrimination, and to permit me to return to the park and library to make full use of its accommodations and services, including through peaceful, civil, and non-confrontational conversations about Jesus,” she wrote.
First Liberty Institute and William Wray Jr., an attorney at Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C., are representing her.
“Banning a blind woman from entering a public park simply because she offers people she meets religious material is outrageous and discriminatory,” said Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty Institute. “No government entity should ban anyone -- let alone a gentle, blind woman – for simply carrying on conversations about her faith and giving them a copy of the Gospel of John in a public park.”
Acting on complaints from the association, police threatened her last year with arrest if she returns.
“I do not walk about or sit down with a cardboard sign carrying an ominous message concerning the end of days,” she writes in the discrimination charge. “I do not shout of the coming apocalypse or cry out that so-and-so is condemned to damnation and the world is doomed. I do not prophesy or speak in tongues or shout. I do not follow people and harangue them. I do not argue with those who wish to end any conversation I might initiate. I do not carry around a can seeking donations for myself or for my church.”
Instead, she said she simply offers them a copy of the Gospel of John, “no arguing.” The Bibles are from the Pocket Testament League.
“From time to time I attempt to start a conversation with passersby, and if they are willing, I offer them a copy of the Gospel of John and explain my beliefs,” she says “I have had many positive interactions with men and women that I’ve met in this way.”
Blair was diagnosed at age 12 with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that causes gradual loss of sight. Blair had to stop driving in 1988 and stop working as a nurse in 1989.
“As my vision faded, I came to see more clearly that we are born again through Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” she wrote in the discrimination charge. “The one thing that sustained me through the devastation of my progressive vision loss was the fact that I had, since 1984, an established, deep, personal relationship with my Lord, Jesus Christ.
“Despite my blindness, my deep and abiding faith gave purpose in life,” she wrote. “I have always done my best to care for others. In the beginning of my career I provided medical care as a nurse. But now I care for others in what I feel is an even more important sense, by bringing the good news of the Gospel to others so they can have eternal life.”
Photo courtesy: Pexels/Kaboompics.com
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.