Pastor Threatened With Arrest

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Out of 46 years in ministry, the pastor of Agape Fellowship Church in Meridian says he has never experienced what happened to him Sunday.

'Never in all my ministry,' says Pastor Gary Bickford.

Members of his congregation contacted Newscenter 11 about an incident which they say happened during the church's Homecoming Service at Bonita Lakes Park. For the occasion, the church rented a popular pavilion. About thirty minutes into the service they say a police officer approached the pastor about turning down the music.

'She said, 'We've had some complaints that you're too loud.' I said, 'O.K.' So, I motioned the sound man and he turned the sound down; she said, 'A little more,' and I turned it down. She said, 'One more time,' and I turned it down.'

After that, Bickford says the officer left but returned about fifteen to twenty minutes later requesting proof that the church had rented the space.

"I walked back there and showed her the receipt and she took it in her hand and looked at it. She was standing there and said, 'Sir, my sergeant, my watch commander, is on his way out here and he's going to arrest you.' I said, 'Arrest me for what?!' She said, 'For disturbing the peace.' I said, 'Ma'am, you asked me to cut it down and I did,' and I said, 'If he's going to arrest me then, why don't you just take me now and I stuck my hands out. I said, 'Just go ahead and arrest me."

The U.S. Constitution references the issue of religion in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Bickford and some other members of the congregation say the Constitution proves that the officer violated the law, not the pastor.

'This is not something where some pastor has done something wrong. It was all right, she said, after we turned it (the music) down. We complied, but to come back again and start this other stuff, interrupt a preaching worship service. It's illegal to do that.'

Ultimately, another officer did arrive at the scene, but no arrest was made and no further action was taken. Bickford says he feels the officer was not abiding by police department guidelines, but instead acting on her own.

'I think this lady was totally out of line,' Bickford said. "I think she owes me and the church an apology.'

Chief James Reed with the Meridian Police Department says he plans to talk to Bickford about the matter.