Fighting Discrimination

Disrupting Other People’s Events Because Of Your Religion Is Not Free Speech

  Rob Boston

Disrupting Events Because Of Your Religion Is Not Free Speech

A few weeks ago, I was running errands on a Saturday morning in the downtown area of the community where I live when I noticed a crowd of people gathered around a small outdoor stage. I drew closer and saw that a drag queen was reading a story to children.

It was a pleasant day, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I paused to watch for a few minutes, but soon the scene changed dramatically. A small band of fundamentalist Christians with a portable amplifier began screaming homophobic comments and preaching about Jesus. This was not a peaceful protest. They disrupted the event. I saw children in tears and watched as alarmed parents began yelling back at the fundamentalists. Chaos ensued, and the story time ended early, which, I’m sure, was the goal of the fundamentalists all along.

I thought about that incident after reading a recent Religion News Service (RNS) story about members of the Wiccan and Pagan community who are increasingly seeing their outdoor events, such as street fairs and festivals, disrupted by intolerant fundamentalists with portable amplifiers.

In one recent incident from New York City, fundamentalists came to WitchsFest USA, an outdoor Pagan festival, and began shouting through amplifiers and bullhorns. City law requires people who are using such devices to have permits, and it’s unclear if the preachers had them. Nevertheless, the police refused to tell them to leave.

Police “treated us as if we were invading the Christians’ space as if they had more rights than we do,” Starr RavenHawk, an organizer of the festival, told RNS. The preachers, she said, “were loud, and they were carrying on. Of course it was disruptive.”

One session at the event had to be canceled, and some festival vendors left early, remarking that they didn’t feel safe.

Just to be clear, protestors have the right to attend events that are open to the public. They have the right to pass out fliers, wave signs, talk to attendees and engage in other non-disruptive actions. But these fundamentalists have gone far beyond that. Their activities are designed to shut down events that offend their religious beliefs. That’s not free speech, it’s harassment. And if the reverse were happening, if a band of loud Pagans bearing bullhorns and amplifiers invaded an outdoor festival of Christians and made so much noise and threatened people’s safety to the point that the event had to shut down, I can guarantee you the Pagans would have been hauled off.

Christian nationalists talk a lot about “religious freedom.” But some of their followers have demonstrated through their actions that they don’t recognize the rights of other faiths. They seem to embrace religious freedom only for themselves. It’s time for them to learn that concept covers all religions – even ones they dislike.

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