Religious group sparks student protests

Callan Pugh

On Oct. 22, the presence of two men claiming to be fundamentalist Christians on Ashland’s campus started a student-lead protest.

            The group had several signs with statements written on them that many students found offensive including one entitled “God’s Roles for Women” and another entitled “Sex Ed. 101.”

Director of Safety Services Dave McLaughlin explained that these men go from campus to campus with the intent of sharing their messages. They visited another Ohio campus the week before they came to Ashland.

The men were on campus for a short time before a crowd started to gather around them. Senior Lyndsey Morrison was off campus with friends when she received a call that the group was set up by the crosswalk between the Student Center and Bixler. She rushed back to campus to see what was going on.

“We were just walking down the sidewalk right in front of Kilhefner to where [the men] were standing,” said Morrison. “We didn’t say a word and we were reading the signs when the one guy started pointing to some of the more offensive words and started talking to us implying that we were in line with those words. You know, no regard to what our religious background could have been. He just assumed… pretty wrongfully… that we were against whatever they were promoting. Then verbally [they] were very negative. I very much considered it verbal harassment.”

McLaughlin explained that for a group like this to come on campus, property they must have permission from the Student Life Office, and in a case like this possibly from the Religious Life Office. However, these men were not considered to be on campus property.

“They weren’t on campus, they were on the sidewalk,” said McLaughlin. “We don’t have any jurisdiction on the side walk, that’s public property. They are allowed to be there.”

According to McLaughlin, Safety Services kept a close eye on the protest, as it happened to make sure students were safe. He explained that had the situation gotten out of hand and became an issue of public safety, police could have stepped in.

“But, these guys are very strategic on what they do,” said McLaughlin. “They go from campus to campus and they know where they’re going to get the best results for the objective they’re looking for.”

McLaughlin noted that when one of the men stepped off the sidewalk on to campus property he was asked to get back on public property. If the man had not cooperated, he could have been arrested for trespassing, but he was compliant. One of the men had also parked on campus property and was told his car would be towed, but he moved it before the university could take action.

Morrison was one of the first students to engage in conversation with the men, inspiring other students to join her. By the time she left, she said a group of at least 20 people had gathered and that students continued to come and go for the next two hours.

“I never intended to start a protest. I intended to go over there and make someone mad, and I probably did, because I love to speak out. I am incredibly opinionated,” said Morrison. “It was great to have people around me, people I didn’t even know, agree with what I was saying, I felt so empowered for the rest of the day.”

Logan Imber had seen similar groups on campus in past years but had been hesitant to approach them. This time she made a beeline to the men and began to explain to them that the Bible doesn’t tell Christians to condemn others, which she believed the men were doing.

“Nobody is going to agree. The Bible is a hard book to read. There are so many different ways to interpret things so it’s almost impossible for people to agree,” said Imber. “He was claiming it was loving but it wasn’t loving. They really like to quote bible verses but they don’t seem to actually know the context or what they meant or even care about the big story of the Gospel and about Jesus and what He did, which was frustrating to me because all these people who may or may not be Christian are hearing this message from a guy who claims to be a fundamentalist Christian who is saying this is what Jesus is about. That’s not what Jesus is about.”

Morrison spoke to the men about her open mindedness and love of learning about other people and cultures, noting that her favorite class she ever took in college was a world religion class. Like Imber, she didn’t like the way the men presented their message.

 “He said that we were abominations and that we were going to hell,” said Morrison. “He was like ‘Oh I’m preaching a message of love,’ and I said ‘this is a message of intolerance and hatred. Nothing about this is preaching love.”

Morrison also noted that her recently dyed, purple hair was a point of contention for one of the men.

“He gestured to it and said that’s offensive, you should cut it off,” said Morrison. “The one side of the sign was talking about you know, quote, God’s roles for women, and that we are to be quiet, submissive, child-bearing house wives, and that’s awesome if you believe in that, however I do not.”

Cameron Taylor was on his way to the library when he encountered the men and noticed the “God’s Role for Women” sign.

“There are lots of families where women work full time and that’s the case in my family,” said Taylor. “I turned out OK, I don’t think that makes me from a bad family. I was angry with [the man] because when you don’t value one-half of society, it’s not a healthy society. These men were being very judgmental and very wrong and I’m a Christian but I don’t believe in what they were saying so I felt they should be confronted and I think others felt the same way.”

Though Taylor also spoke with the men about gay rights, he spoke to them mostly about women’s rights.

“I brought up that I thought that the women’s movement on the whole has been good for our society,” said Taylor. “I think it has made our society more fair and productive. It has allowed people to pursue what they want to do. And no one is saying that if a woman wants to be married and have the traditional role she can’t do that, but she should have the freedom to choose what she wants. Everyone should have that freedom, that’s kind of what our country was founded on.”

            According to Morrison, The men talked to her about how women shouldn’t be at college and that they should obey everything that a man says to them.

“I said, “OK, so do you believe that the man who raped me was in the right?’” said Morrison. “And he said ‘No, you were raped because you are a sinner.’ That’s when I said OK and just stepped away”

Nicole Lederle, a sophomore, was in her room on the fifth floor of Clark with her windows closed when she overheard one of the men screaming that gay people aren’t real from the sidewalk outside. She gathered her friends together to go confront the men. She noted that confrontation was probably what the men wanted but that she would not remain voiceless just because of that.

“The man said he was spreading love,” said Lederle. “But, I was like how are you spreading love when you’re telling students on campus that they are going to hell for being students, and telling women they need to be submissive to men, and telling gay people that they’re not real? Because I think I’m real and I’m standing right in front of you.”

Though Morrison said that her friends in Greek Life have given her a safe space to be open about her sexuality but that many students don’t have a place that is safe. She believes that this event has opened a dialog about the LGBTQ community on campus.

“I think it would be really helpful if the University would let us start a Gay-Straight Alliance,” said Morrison. “I understand that we are a Brethren school but we have a very prevalent LGBTQIA community on this campus, and if you want to succeed as a campus that has strong student relationships then you’re going to need something like that because there are many students, gay, straight, asexual, bisexual, everything, that want to have one. Myself included. It would show that our campus has a safe spot because right now there really isn’t.”

Though many students stood with Morrison against the messages these men were conveying, some supported the men in their mission. Logan Alexander said he stood back and observed the men and student protesters for a half-hour. He admitted the signs the men were holding could have used some clarification but said that they were intended to start a conversation and that the student protestors seemed uninterested in listening to what the men had to say.

“Their purpose there was to share scripture and to talk about the Gospel and the truth contained there in,” said Alexander. “For example the sign that described man to man is sodomy, man to animal is bestiality, man to child is pedophilia, woman to woman is lesbianism, and man to woman is marriage. You know…that was an attempt to generate conversation. I think they could have phrased their message better to generate a little more conversation and a little less rage.”

Alexander went on to explain that though the men clearly took a stance against homosexuality, their sign about God’s Role for Women was only intended to look at what scripture said about the roles women should have in order to start dialog about it.

“I was talking with the older of the two gentlemen about the reaction that was unfolding among the protesters and he mentioned to me that he was almost surprised to see this kind of reaction on the campus of a private Christian university,” said Alexander. “He asked about demographics, the male to female ratio and about the kind of programs offered here. And we also talked about what they were doing as far as whether or not they had a right to be there.”

Alexander said he too was shocked to see students reacting in that way considering that Ashland is nominally a Christian university.

“I just naturally expected a more reasoned approach, even if there was strong disagreement, that people would have a conversation,” said Alexander. Initially it was the shock that people would result to [protesting] but then the fact that I found it so appalling kept me from joining in with [the protestors]. I tried to encourage people to actually listen instead of just yelling and screaming at the men and not giving them time to answer. They were describing behaviors, not targeting certain groups.”

Morrison believes that the action taken by students that day showed that they weren’t going to back down.

“People were saying and tweeting ‘oh just ignore them, you’re giving them what they want’,” said Morrison. “No. They want you to repent on your knees in front of them. I think that what we did stirred the pot. My voice is something to be heard and I’m not going to quiet myself at my own expense.”

Alexander expressed that he would have liked to see the university become more involved with the protest.

“If they had the time, I wish [the university] would have attempted to moderate it and quiet down some of the outrageous behavior that the protestors were doing,” said Alexander. And to promote either reasonable and calm conversation or to ask the students to leave.”

Despite the negative atmosphere at the beginning of the protest, Taylor believes that the presence of the two men had a positive impact.

“I think it united most people from the school,” said Taylor. “It created a situation where people were standing up for women’s rights and gay rights and I think it gave the campus some unity.”

Many of the students involved said that should the men return, they would do it all over again. Morrison has even made a sign that she has hanging in her room, ready to go at a moments notice. Lederle noted that if given a second chance she would like to be more prepared to talk with the men.

“I think I would perhaps rally people who are passionate about the fight for everything those men are against and have facts that I can say to the men so I don’t sound ignorant, “said Lederle. “And basically not be as heated and just calmly talk to them. They come with an agenda and want to irritate people and so I would like to confront them in a calm manner instead of just going up to them and yelling at them like I did.”

Taylor also noted that he would confront the men again if given the chance.

“I’m a Christian,” said Taylor. “I’m also a member of College Republicans. This is something that crosses religious lines and political lines. I think that what they were saying is wrong and that people recognized it as such. I feel strongly that I am in the right here. That’s not meant to sound arrogant but I think that the majority of people on this campus are on my side. I think that this campus would do the same again if they came back and offer a strong voice against their message.”

In the case that these men do return, Alexander believes that those who are passionately opposed to what the men believe should avoid confrontation.

“If you believe yourself to be able to maintain a calm demeanor then absolutely have a conversation with them, and encourage others to do the same,” said Alexander. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, including hard questions but be prepared to listen to the answers.”

McLaughlin advised students to not engage with groups that come on campus in future situations.

“That’s what these guys are looking for,” said McLaughlin. “They’re looking to engage people and debate people. In my humble opinion, you’re debating with an irrational person at that point and its not going to be productive. The best thing to do is ignore it, but that isn’t always an option for some people and these are issues that many people feel passionate about.”