Teen-agers hanging out on the Balboa Peninsula may be able to avoid having to go home when the 11 p.m. curfew strikes by joining the “Midnight Newport Church,” which, according to its founder, commands its adherents to “run to and fro through the streets” and “make a loud noise and rejoice.”
Although Newport Beach police have had little difficulty enforcing the city’s emergency curfew ordinance, adopted three weeks ago, Harry Lerner, a 26-year-old Tustin lawyer and founder of what he whimsically calls the Midnight Church, is mounting a one-man campaign to help the under-18 crowd beat the curfew.
Last weekend, Lerner passed out a few hundred copies of his neatly printed leaflet titled “How to Beat the Curfew.” He plans to do the same this weekend.
The one-page text advises youths of exceptions to the curfew ordinance and their constitutional rights to refuse to answer police questions. It also contains the articles of faith for his church, “membership” in which, Lerner says, will allow youths to take advantage of provisions in the law that excuse teen-agers engaged in religious activities.
“God bless this pizza we are about to eat” is the extent of the church’s liturgy, uttered in thanks by youths who flock to the “holy land,” which according to Lerner’s leaflet is Newport Beach, the final resting place of Adam and Eve.
Moreover, he says, the faithful make pilgrimages each sabbath (Friday and Saturday nights at midnight) to the Newport and Balboa piers, the church’s “sacred shrines,” which are made from remnants of Noah’s ark.
Despite the leaflet’s humorous style, however, Charles Gross, Newport Beach’s chief of police, is not amused.
“I think that it is of concern to anyone that an individual would direct people to violate an ordinance,” Gross said. “I know that he’s saying that he is only telling people to protect their rights, but he’s admonishing people to do something (illegal).”
Although Gross admitted that Lerner’s right to pass out leaflets is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, the police chief is skeptical of the new religion.
“I don’t know where it is incorporated and as such, I would have questions as to whether it is a legitimate religious organization,” he said. “Naturally, when I say ‘legitimate,’ I mean that it exists other than in the imagination of the individual.”
Gross said that while a juvenile may plead membership in the Midnight Newport Church, “an officer would be able to take the person into custody if a reasonable person thinks he’s underage.”
Lerner, an attorney since 1983, disagrees, however, and maintains that minors who become members of the church will be able to take advantage of the law’s exception for religious activities.
“It would seem to me that the police would be acting in a discriminatory manner if they singled out members of any church for violations of the ordinance,” Lerner said. “The police cannot decide if a religion is legitimate or illegitimate.”
Lerner admits that the advice in the leaflet may not work and suggests that juveniles consult their own lawyers should they run afoul of the curfew. Lerner said he will refuse to handle any curfew cases himself. The important thing, he said, is that people need to be reminded that they have constitutional rights.
“Teen-agers may not change their attitudes toward the curfew, but if they realize that they live in a free country and not under a totalitarian power, than maybe they will be a little more proud to be Americans,” Lerner said.
The youths crowding the Balboa Peninsula at night are proof of a free society, Lerner said, suggesting that Newport Beach residents and City Council members who cite nighttime noise as a reason for a curfew “maybe should live in the Soviet Union where the streets are quiet.”
The Newport Beach City Council on July 9 passed the emergency curfew ordinance, which set an 11 p.m. deadline for minors to be off the streets. Last week, the council also approved the first reading of a curfew ordinance that would set a 10 p.m. deadline.
Awaits Final Approval
If the earlier curfew is given final approval when the council meets in two weeks, it would become effective in early September and would replace the emergency 11 p.m. law.
Chief Gross, however, said he doesn’t think the youngsters who flock to the peninsula and have so far dispersed at 11 p.m. will pay much attention to Lerner’s leaflet campaign.
“I don’t think that it’s going to have any real impact because the kids are smarter than he thinks,” Gross said. “In the whole scheme of the world, it won’t make zippo difference.”