LARGO — Five men who protested in last year's St. Pete Pride festival were found guilty of violating a city ordinance Thursday, though they still could win an acquittal if the judge rules the ordinance is unconstitutional.
After about three hours of testimony, Judge Henry Andringa found that the men violated a city ordinance by carrying signs that were wider than their torsos during last year's festival, which drew more than 40,000 people. The signs said things like "Real men marry women" and "Heaven free of f---, hell full of f---."
But Andringa said he will take more time to determine if the ordinance violates the First Amendment.
"I've found them guilty so far but not completely guilty yet," Andringa said.
Thursday's trial came two days before the Pride parade returns to the streets of St. Petersburg and the judge declined to bar the protesters from appearing again with their signs.
David Schauer, a lawyer who is co-chairman of the Pride event, asked Andringa to issue an order preventing the men from protesting Saturday, but Andringa told Schauer to file a motion today.
The men, who are all from Georgia, declined to comment. Their lawyer, Krisanne Hall, also would not answer questions. Hall is with the law firm of David Gibbs, who takes on Christian causes and is best known for representing the parents of Terri Schiavo.
Schauer said he fears the protesters will show up again Saturday. So he obtained an assembly permit this year, which he believes will prevent the men from bringing signs into the festival that have not been approved by the Pride board of directors.
In a previous interview with the St. Petersburg Times, one of the men, Francis Primavera, said the group is from a Georgia church. He said they have traveled to several southern cities to protest gay pride events.
Protests at the 2006 festival led to scuffles, prompting the city to adopt an ordinance prohibiting bull horns and signs larger than the carrier's torso. The ordinance designated an area where protesters could carry large signs, but banned them inside the festival. City officials said the ordinance is designed to keep pedestrian traffic flowing and to protect people from being bumped in the head with signs.
St. Petersburg police asked the men several times last year to carry their signs sideways so they would not extend past their torsos, but the men refused.
The men say the ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates free speech. But Kimberly Proano, an attorney for the city, said the ordinance is lawful because it does not regulate the messages written on the signs.
Andringa said he will give both sides time to file additional motions about the constitutional issue, so his ruling won't be for at least three weeks.
Part of Central Avenue in the Grand Central District will be closed Saturday for the St. Pete Pride festival, and PSTA bus routes through that area will be detoured.
From 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., nine bus routes will be altered for the event, which will close Central Avenue from 21st Street to 28th Street. Commuters can check the "Rider Alert" page on www.PSTA.net or call the PSTA InfoLine at (727) 540-1900 to get specifics.