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First Amendment Fight: Two churches deal with strange protest in Key Biscayne

A Brazilian flag is in flames as a man stands next to it holding a Confederate flag.
KBI Photo
Tony Winton
Brazilian flags are set ablaze outside Crossbridge Church in Key Biscayne by supporters of Francis Khan.

First Amendment rights clashed again in Key Biscayne Sunday as a sporadic protest at the Presbyterian church spilled over to the neighboring congregation, where puzzled parishioners at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church arrived to witness men waving a Confederate flag and holding signs with racial slurs.

On one side of the constitutional conflict is Francis Khan, a real estate agent who continues to burn Brazilian flags over his ire at Crossbridge Church Pastor Felipe Assis, a Brazilian-American. On the other side are congregants of two churches, who have an equally strong First Amendment right to worship in peace and safety.

Some Crossbridge congregants have expressed irritation with Khan, who has clashed with numerous people at different locations on the island and is named in police complaints. At a service last month, children in Sunday school were placed in a brief lockdown about the same time some of his supporters walked on church property, a teacher said.

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“Everyone has First Amendment rights,” said Police Chief Frank Sousa, who said none of the churches had expressed concerns that their rights were being subordinated to those of Khan. “He was intent on complying with the court order, which is what we care about.”

The temporary order granted March 15th is limited to Khan and does not include his supporters, and is connected to a pending assault case. In that matter, Khan faces a misdemeanor charge for allegedly assaulting the wife of another Crossbridge pastor. Trial in that case is set for next month, records show, although Miami-Dade dockets are often delayed for months.

On Sunday, Khan stayed in front of the St. Agnes entrance, which officers had determined was 500 feet away from Crossbridge. His supporters stayed at Crossbridge, however, where they planted signs in the swale that were later removed by Crossbridge representatives.

Then, as a half dozen police and firefighters watched, a man who identified himself only as “Brother Prince,” lit three flags on fire in a parking space in front of the Crossbridge sign. “We love Jesus, too,” he said, saying the group just wants to have a dialogue with Crossbridge. “Let’s do it the Christian way. Be Christ-like.”

At St. Agnes, Rev. Juan Carlos Paguaga had earlier come out to speak to Khan.

Khan said afterward the pastor had blessed him. Paguaga told the Independent that Khan had parked his vehicle on St. Agnes property and he asked him to move it.

“A lot of people were confused,” said Paguaga, who informed parishoners that outside the church was city property.

A man in a black tshirt wearing a white hat stands outside next to two police officers in uniform.
KBI Photo
Tony Winton
Francis Khan stands next to Key Biscayne Police Sgt. Gus Padron outisde St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church.

Khan has attended Crossbidge off-and-on for years. He initially was upset with Crossbridge’s decision to leave the Presbyterian Church in America denomination over the issue of female leadership. Members voted last year to seek entry into a different Presbyterian group that allows women to hold church office

Since then, Khan has tried to falsely frame his exclusion from Crossbridge as being racially motivated. He has also written hard-to-follow screeds to the Village Council, accusing Assis of trying to take over the Crossbridge property.

“They messed with the wrong person,” Khan said in a curse-filled interview after the protest. “They threw me and my Jesus out of the church. What they do to one black person, they do to all of us.”

He said he faces two trespass charges, as well as the misdemeanor assault for allegedly cursing out the pastor’s wife on a Key Biscayne street while she rode bikes with her daughter. Khan said he has done nothing wrong. “I’m willing to go to jail for my First Amendment rights,” he said.

Assis also did not return a phone or a text message for comment.

On Sunday, Khan and his supporters, who are black, carried signs of both civil rights leaders and the Confederate flag. One sign read “No Niggas, No Jews, No Dogs.” The Chabad Key Biscayne Jewish Center is across the street from St. Agnes.

The U.S. Supreme Court has placed limits on government restrictions of protests and flag burning, which it has held is a form of free speech. Although “buffer zones” can be used to protect entrances, those zones have often been the subjects of litigation.

In 1994, Congress passed the FACE Act, which makes it a federal crime to interfere with abortion clinic access as well as the exercise of religious freedom at places of worship. The law also allows civil lawsuits by persons who claim their rights of religious freedom have been violated.

Khan’s actions appear to be escalating along with the size of his protests. Five other protestors joined him Sunday.

Besides allegedly harassing the pastor’s wife, police have been called to several disturbances involving him, including one at the Silver Sands Hotel on Feb. 10 where he accused another man of striking him, according to police reports. A witness said it was a friendly tap.

He also randomly shows up at the police station, sometimes to complain about Crossbridge, but other times on different issues – such as the police budget, records show. This week, he loudly tried to engage in conversation with a KBI reporter who was buying strawberries at Winn-Dixie.

Key Biscayne Mayor Joe Rasco, who was emerging from St. Agnes as Khan was packing up his things Sunday, said he didn’t see much of what transpired. But other parishioners seemed perplexed as they drove into the newly-renovated church’s main entrance.

Editor’s Note: Tony Winton is a former board member of Crossbridge Church and remains a member of the congregation. John Pacenti made final editorial decisions about the content of this story. 

This story was originally published in the Key Biscayne Independent, a WLRN News partner.

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