Brian Johnson hands out bibles at Pride Fest with a smile

Fresh off a court victory that affirmed his 1st Amendment right to visit the 2010 Twin Cities Pride Festival, evangelist Brian Johnson and his family showed up at the event on Saturday in Loring Park, striking up conversations with festival goers and handing out bibles to anyone requesting one.

He was not the fire-breathing anti-gay fulminator one might have expected based on news reports last week. And with a scrum of TV cameras pointing at him he said he didn't consider himself a member of the religious right, declared "compassion for the homosexual," and said he wasn't there to condemn anyone.

"I'm not seeking confrontation," he said as two women thought they'd make a scene by making out next to him as he spoke with reporters -- and were ignored. "God is the judge, not me. I would never tell anyone, anywhere, that they're going to hell."

And once the cameras drifted away, he, his wife and son pulled their roller bags filled with bibles through the park.

Smiling, decked out in bright yellow t-shirts reading "free bibles," they drew curious stares from some festival goers, and snickers from others.

A note handed to Brian Johnson during Pride Fest.
A note handed to Brian Johnson during Pride Fest.
Photo: Hart Van Denburg

At one point, someone pressed a printed note into his hand that read, "You're a lying, hateful bigot, your religion is a disgusting lie, your non-existent deity is a sad fantasy for frightened cavemen and you're a parasite on society."

Johnson shook his head as he looked at the note.

"I read the articles about me, and I feel bad," Johnson said. "I just want to shake someone's hand, look them in the eye, and tell them Jesus loves them."

At least on Saturday afternoon, Johnson didn't raise the ruckus that Pride Fest organizers warned about earlier in the week while seeking a court injunction barring him from the park.

Johnson, of Hayward, Wis., had leased a booth at Pride Fest for years. But last year, he was denied space. He showed up anyway to get his message out, and was arrested. This year, the Park Board OK'd Johnson's request to be in the park, but said he'd be arrested if he's disruptive.

Twin Cities Pride lawyers had argued in court that since the group leased the park for the event, it should be able to dictate who gets to take part in the festival's activities there -- and even though they leased space to almost a dozen churches and religious groups, they said Johnson wasn't welcome.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, on the other hand, defended itself, saying that anyone should be able to walk through a public park and express themselves freely.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim ruled in Johnson's favor.

Madelyn Nelson, of Maple Grove, who spent some time talking with Johnson while a giant macaw looked on from a perch on her shoulder, said that while she didn't agree with what Johnson had to say, she appreciated being able to have a conversation about Jesus with some mutual respect.

"We could talk about it without shutting each other down," she said.

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