In September 1994, Minister Roland Muhammad, on behalf of the Nation of Islam and in conjunction with Muhammad’s Mosque No. 18, inquired about the possibility of having Minister Louis Farrakhan deliver a free lecture to a males-only audience at the Cleveland Convention Center. This men-only gathering adhered to a more than sixty-year-old tradition of having ministers deliver separate weekly addresses to males and females. Following a meeting between city officials and representatives of the Nation of Islam, Director of Parks, Recreation, and Properties Oliver Spellman, Jr. informed Minister Muhammad that city ordinances forbade discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sex. Spellman concluded that if the Nation did not intend to violate these laws, the Nation could use the space. The Nation of Islam, however, did not want to compromise on its traditions.

If the city refused to lease the space to the Nation, it could face a lawsuit for violating First Amendment rights. However, if the city did allow the males-only event to occur, someone could allege gender discrimination. Because of this dilemma, the city sought a judgment from the Court of Common Pleas, Cuyahoga County, that First Amendment rights were not violated by refusing to lease the space to the Nation. ACLU of Ohio lawyers Kevin O’Neill, Scott Greenwood, Raymond Vasvari, and Gino Scarselli filed a motion in the U.S. District Court arguing that the city had previously allowed the Billy Graham Crusade to hold events promoted as single gender at the Convention Center and that not allowing the Nation to hold its men-only lecture violated its First Amendment rights.

On November 1, 1995, the U.S. District Court judge ruled that if Minister Farrakhan had to speak to a mixed audience, “the content and character of the speech will necessarily be changed.” He ordered the city to lease the Convention Center to the Nation of Islam for the men-only event.

Read the U.S. District Court’s decision.

Date filed

September 20, 1994