Las Vegas street preachers and casino owners make uneasy peace in 'Sin City'

A feud between pavement preachers and Las Vegas casinos, has reached an uneasy truce, thanks to the most unlikely of peace-brokers.

Casino owners, who rely on a carefree "Sin City" image to attract tourists and gamblers, have long objected to the small band of placard-bearing preachers who march the pavements denouncing prostitutes, homosexuals, the devil and gambling. Security guards used to try to move them on.

The preachers have insisted the pavements along the famous Las Vegas "Strip" are public forums where they have the right to spread the gospel as they wish. Occasionally the disputes have turned into scuffles, much to the delight of crowds of onlookers.

Now, the American Civil Liberties Union, ironically despised by the preachers and the casinos, has negotiated a deal. Both sides have accepted a tenuous agreement which bans commercial activity, such as the handing out of invitations to strip clubs and massage parlours, but allows preachers and demonstrators to stay as long as their placards are no wider than the width of their bodies.

The ACLU became involved after 500 trades union protesters were arrested for trespassing at the MGM Grand Hotel. The incident led to a lawsuit, and a court ruling on another protest that the pavement in front of the resort was a public forum, although it was on private property.

"What the court said, basically, is that if it looks like a sidewalk, smells like a sidewalk and functions like a sidewalk, then by golly, it's a public sidewalk," said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU.

The city's rapid growth is being seen as the cause of the problem. As the number of visitors increased, wider pavements were built on private property in front of the massive, themed hotels and casinos which have sprung up in the past two decades. Increasingly, the casinos have tried to control the activity on their doorsteps and ban the proselytisers who were seen as bad for business.

Preachers and protesters clashed with police several time. Pastor Tom Griner of the South Valley Christian Fellowship, a self-styled "messenger of God" who carries a placard bearing the slogan, "The Sin And The Sinner Go Straight To Hell Together", was prosecuted for obstruction.

Despite the ACLU role, the preachers have viewed it as insufferably liberal, condoning homosexuality and abortions; the casinos have seen the civil libertarians as meddling troublemakers. The court ruling failed to end to the trouble. Casinos, security firms and some police initially ignored it. ACLU workers joined the confrontations on the Strip, with impassioned arguments for free speech.

Months ago, security guards at New York-New York, a resort with the façade of Manhattan's skyline, evicted an Iraq war protester. Such incidents, along with the ACLU's argument that Las Vegas was sacrificing constitutional rights to guard its carefree image, finally caught city leaders' attention, and the company which owns the MGM Grand and New York-New York conceded a mistake had been made. Police, too, acknowledged that officers had been "too aggressive" in attempting to evict the preachers and others from the pavements.

Although the police and the casinos see the new arrangement as a happy compromise, the ACLU is opposed to a distinction between the rights of commercial enterprises and pressure groups. They foresee new free-speech battles, such as a dispute over where newspaper racks can be installed, and they are not convinced that the preachers will not be harassed again.

But for now, its campaign is winding down and most of those involved agree with MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman, who said: "We really have found a way to maintain the best of both worlds, where private property owners are not taken advantage of by commercial interests, the public is not preyed on by commercial interests, and those who wish to express an opinion or political perspective are given access."

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