More than two years after Baltimore officials unsuccessfully attempted to cancel a downtown rally hosted by a far-right Catholic website, the city is expected to pay out $275,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging it violated First Amendment rights in its effort to block the event.

Church Militant had planned to hold a “prayer rally” at Baltimore’s city-owned MECU Pavilion at the Inner Harbor on Nov. 16, 2021. Run by the Michigan-based St. Michael’s Media, Church Militant is unaffiliated with the Catholic Church and has developed a following for its far-right criticisms of the church hierarchy, often taking aim at the institution’s sexual abuse crisis and its allegedly soft position on abortion. The organization’s founder and former president, Michael Voris, has frequently claimed the Catholic Church is run by an “international gay-crime syndicate.”

When Church Militant announced plans to come to Baltimore in 2021, city officials attempted to intervene, asking the contractor who managed the MECU Pavilion to cancel the event. The group’s 2021 rally, branded “Bishops: Enough is Enough,” was scheduled for the same time as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, held near the pavilion.

The city argued at the time that Church Militant had a “track record” for drawing protesters and counter protesters, inciting violent outbreaks and property damage, and had shown support for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol earlier that year. Proposed speakers for the event included right-wing activists Steve Bannon, the media executive and strategist to former President Donald Trump, and Milo Yiannopoulos, then a columnist for Church Militant — a “star-studded” roster the city argued increased the risk of violent disruption in the heart of downtown, according to court filings.

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That September, Church Militant sued the city, arguing in federal court that the city’s cancellation violated the organization’s rights to free speech and free assembly.

U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander sided with Church Militant in October, stating that First Amendment concerns were “at the heart” of the case and arguing that the right-wing site was likely to succeed on its arguments that the city had infringed on their freedom of speech by attempting to cancel the rally. At the same time, city officials based their decision on anticipated instigators showing up to the event, Hollander said. The city “cannot conjure up hypothetical hecklers and then grant them veto power.”

Hollander set no contractual requirements and said she expected “good faith” negotiations between the two sides. Her ruling was upheld the following month by a federal appeals court, allowing the rally to go forward.

City attorneys are expected to ask Baltimore’s mayor-controlled spending board to approve a $275,000 settlement with the outlet on Wednesday. In its request to the Board of Estimates, the Law Department recommends approving the payout to avoid greater legal fees and a “potential adverse jury verdict.” The costs of the settlement are less than a quarter of the total spent on the legal battle so far, according to the agenda for Wednesday’s spending board meeting.

Following its legal wins against the city, Church Militant went through with its event on Nov. 16, 2021, drawing hundreds of attendees to the Inner Harbor. Bannon was indicted on two criminal contempt charges days before the event and did not attend. Yiannopoulos, though, headlined. Some counterprotesters showed up, resulting in verbal altercations, but the rally did not result in violence, according to Baltimore Sun coverage of the event.

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Church Militant had held a rally at the same Pier VI location in 2018, similarly focused on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, according to court filings.

Church Militant claimed in court filings that former Baltimore City Solicitor Jim Shea had spoken by phone with Voris after his group scheduled the rally. The former top city attorney told Voris, the organization’s former president, that his office had received reports documenting Church Militant’s “ties” to the Jan. 6 insurrection. When Voris denied the argument and asked Shea for his sources, the solicitor responded that “people” had told him the ties were widely documented online, according to Church Militant court filings.

Baltimore’s decision to settle its lawsuit comes as Church Militant has indicated in recent days that it plans to shut down. The publication agreed to pay a New Hampshire priest $500,000 in response to federal ruling in a defamation suit over a 2019 article, and attorneys for the site said it expects to shutter in April, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Voris resigned in November under unspecified “morality” violations, but reporting last month in The Washington Post found that employees had complained about him sending shirtless workout selfies to male staffers. The Church Militant founder had previously repented for past relationships with men, and his site frequently antagonized LGBTQ+ people and causes.

Voris announced his resignation in November, in a 14-minute video posted on social media, calling for continued support of the outlet he founded and saying he needed to “conquer these demons.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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