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February 18, 2014 | 03:16 PMELKHORN — An anti-abortion group claims the Walworth County Fair is unfairly prohibiting them from having a booth at next year’s weeklong event and is threatening to settle the issue in court.
Peter’s Net, based in Illinois, has a mission to “evangelize county fair patrons concerning the Catholic faith.” The group has booths at a number of fairs in both Wisconsin and Illinois.
“Examples of Catholic visual information available to interested fairgoers include display presentations of the sacraments, the Church’s pro-life teaching, the Nicene Creed and the papacy,” a letter to the fair states. “Also visually displayed are crucifixes, rosaries, holy cards, pictures of Mary and the saints, and other emblems of the Catholic faith.”
The group had a booth at the 2013 fair but has been denied a space for 2014, according to a letter the group sent to the fair.
In a letter to the fair foundation, the group acknowledges that it did receive a complaint from a fair patron for its anti-abortion stance. The complaint stems from an incident where a 7-year-old boy was given a plastic toy of an 11-to-12 week-old unborn baby.
The boy’s mother was upset that someone from the booth gave her child the toy, and she complained to officials at the fair. The woman also complained to volunteers at the Peter’s Net booth.
The Lake Geneva Regional News contacted a fair official, who said at this time the fair has no comment.
Peter’s Net is being represented by the Thomas More Society, which “is a not-for-profit, national public interest law firm that exists to restore respect in law for life, marriage and religious liberty,” according to its website. “Based in Chicago, the Thomas More Society defends and fosters support for these causes by providing high quality pro bono legal services from local trial courts all the way to the United States Supreme Court.”
The local legal counsel is Jerome Buting of Brookfield. An attempt to reach Buting was made on Monday, but he didn’t return calls by Regional News deadline.
The letter sent to the fair states that if Peter’s Net didn’t hear from the fair by Feb. 12, “we will proceed accordingly.”
Peter’s Net vs. Walworth County Fair
In 2013, Peter’s Net applied to have a booth at the Walworth County Fair, but was initially denied, according to the group’s letter to the fair. After being rejected, Peter’s Net informed the fair it would pursue legal action. The group’s application was ultimately accepted.
After the fair, a fair staffer spoke to members of Peter’s Net and informed them that they wouldn’t be allowed back at next year’s fair.
They were given three reasons:
n A long-time exhibitor didn’t attend the 2013 fair because he was ill. Fair officials said he might want to have his booth in 2014.
n The fair received negative comments about the booth.
n The fetal exhibit was also labeled a problem. A similar exhibit was available at the booth for the Pregnancy Hot Line. The fair has a right to prevent duplication.
“We believe these reasons are unpersuasive and pretextual,” Buting’s letter states. “The real motivation for the fair’s actions against Peter’s Net was its religious speech.”
After receiving the parent complaint, a fair staffer went to the booth to review prizes that were given to children.
The employee told the booth volunteers that she was looking for the “baby in a bag” toy.
Booth volunteers said that this was only given to adults or to children with parent’s permission.
“After examining the so-called “baby in a bag,” (the fair staffer) told (the booth volunteer) that she would not allow her to disseminate it except to persons over 18 years of age,” Buting’s letter states. “Booth volunteers could give the ‘baby in a bag’ to patrons under 18 only if they verified that the person who was granting permission was an actual parent or that the person who wanted the baby model was over the age of 18. This was insulting to patrons and burdensome to Peter’s Net.”
The parent whose child was given the ‘baby in the bag’ visited the booth on Aug. 31. The woman yelled at the booth volunteers and said that the volunteers “ruined her son’s life.”
The woman said the fair promised her that they would not be allowed to return. She reportedly yelled, “I got you kicked out.”