Hare Krishna members throw flowers in Los Angeles.
Hare Krishna members throw flowers in Los Angeles. (David Crane / Los Angeles Daily News / ZUMAPRESS.com)

The International Society of Krishna Consciousness Inc. will argue next week before a federal appeals court that a city ordinance prohibiting its members from soliciting money at Los Angeles International Airport is unconstitutional.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has scheduled oral arguments for May 16 in the case, filed in 1997 in the religious group’s continuing legal battle for access to the nation’s largest airports. The appeal is the latest bid by the Hare Krishna adherents, who practice an evangelical form of Hinduism, to unravel restrictions on its activities since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision more than two decades ago.

“The airport is still to this day the best public facility for the distribution of religious literature,” said the Hare Krishnas’ lead attorney, David Liberman of the Law Offices of David Liberman in Los Angeles. “LAX in Southern California is the best venue far and away for that missionary activity.”

A spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The case, brought by the Hare Krishnas’ California chapter and its president, Emil Beca, argues that the ordinance, which bans the sale of religious literature and volunteer donations throughout the airport, violates the First Amendment right to free speech and the “liberty of speech clause” of the California Constitution.

The ordinance was passed following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in International Society for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee, which upheld a ban by The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey against solicitations inside airport terminals.

In 2010, the California Supreme Court, asked by the Ninth Circuit to weigh in on the state constitutional issue, upheld the ordinance.

The Ninth Circuit then remanded the case to decide the remaining First Amendment claims.

On Aug. 7, 2012, U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall cited security, congestion and disputes between police and solicitors in ruling that the ban was constitutional.

In its appeal brief, the Krishna group argued that the city ordinance is more restrictive than Lee, which allowed religious groups to solicit on exterior sidewalks. The group seeks to hand out fliers only from airport sidewalks, entrance lobbies and certain areas of the international terminal.

City attorneys argued that the ban isn’t that restrictive because it doesn’t prohibit all solicitations—just those seeking immediate donations.

The case was complicated by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and both sides submitted evidence citing security experts. For the city, two airport police officers testified that solicitors were aggressive with passengers and distracted security personnel from their jobs.

The Krishna group’s experts testified that solicitors posed little security threat to airports.

“Almost 12 years later, the courts must move beyond automatic acceptance of any restriction of liberty based on vague security concerns,” Liberman wrote in his appeal brief.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.