What did those N’awlins preachers shout?

First, a word from the editor. In recent weeks, I have been tossing out roughly half of the comments that have been written about many of my posts here at GetReligion. Frankly, I have missed some that I should have spiked — seeing as how I do not live at my computer keyboard 24/7.

I think part of the problem is a negative side effect of a positive change. You see, we have many new readers here in Patheos land and, clearly, lots of folks do not know what GetReligion is all about. Thus, we are getting tons of comments that have zippo content linked to the journalism issues covered in our posts and, instead, are dedicated to readers’ opinions about the actual religious and/or political issues covered in the stories that we dissect.

Please remember that mantra: GetReligion is not a religion site. It’s a site about how the mainstream press covers — for good and ill — events and trends in religion news.

This is a journalism site. Sometimes that requires us to talk about religious history and doctrine as we talk about media coverage, or lack thereof, of key issues in religious history, doctrine and practice. But this is not a political site. It’s a site that advocates balanced, accurate and informed coverage of some of the world’s most important and divisive issues — the ones linked to religion.

This brings me to a rather bizarre story that is unfolding down in Louisiana, where the world of the New Orleans French Quarter has become a colorful, to say the least, arena for debates about the First Amendment. It would be easy to argue about the issues that loom over this story, but we will not do that. Instead, I want to praise the story for getting to the fact that there are liberal, as well as conservative, people who are committed to free speech. At the same time, there seems to be an interesting religion gap in this piece.

So what’s going on? Well, The Times-Picayune reports:

Nine preachers and activists who were arrested Sept. 1 after they allegedly yelled slurs against gays at the Southern Decadence festival in the French Quarter plan to sue the city of New Orleans over the constitutionality of part of its ordinance banning “aggressive solicitation” in the Quarter, said the group’s Los Angeles-based leader, Ruben Israel.

The law, passed in 2011, prohibits “any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message” after dark.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said she is concerned about any law that prohibits political speech and religious exercise. “This is a very problematic law,” she said.

Later on, the story quotes a conservative legal group as it makes the same point, for pretty much the same reasons. That’s good information to have.

This story also notes that the Southern Decadence festival draws more than one kind of preacher who believes that homosexual activity is a sin. Some of these preachers, to say the least, have with different styles, a fact that is crucial to the story. Thus, readers are told:

David Johnson, who leads a local group of preachers who did not get arrested, said police told his group not to pass out literature or talk to people on the street with their message during Decadence. “It is a total violation of constitutional rights, ” he said.

Referring to the ministers who were arrested, Johnson said it is wrong for them to say God hates anyone, but that doing so should not be illegal. The Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice sent a letter to the city Thursday on behalf of Johnson with a demand it take steps to protect Johnson’s freedom of expression.

Once again, this is a valuable point of view, when it comes to offering a diverse set of voices.

So what is missing from this story? I, for one, wanted to know what the arrested preachers were accused or saying and doing. The story gives readers a few meager details, when this element of the story is at the heart of the conflict. I wanted to know more specifics, something beyond a he said-he said standoff. Here is what readers are told:

The incident happened around 8:30 p.m. outside the Tropical Isle bar. The group was bailed out at a total cost of about $2,500, Israel said.

In videos posted on YouTube, cheers from the crowd can be heard after one man is handcuffed and police lead the protesters away. People can be heard on one video saying, “Thank you, Jesus” and “There is a God.” One of the arrested men had held a sign saying “God hates homos,” and a witness said the group had hurled anti-gay slurs.

French Quarter activist Leo Watermeier said he believes the law is reasonable. “They don’t have a right to force you to hear them speak,” he said.

Who, I might ask, were the people saying, “Thank you, Jesus” and “There is a God,” people on the side of the preachers or those who opposed them? But the key issue is what constitutes an “anti-gay slur.” Are people reading out loud from the first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans hurling anti-gay slurs? Is it an anti-gay slur to chant, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”?

We live in an age in which fights about the limits of the First Amendment — especially linked to religion and sexuality, or Islam and other religious groups — are growing more and more common. Frankly, it’s hard to know what is going on in this story without some specific material about the content of the alleged offenses, especially since it is clear that there are traditional Christians who are making their views known in ways that are offensive and others who are not. However, there are allegations that the police are telling ALL of these preachers that they are legally out of line.

Again, let me stress that there is so much that’s right with this story, in terms of covering the complexity of these issues. Still, it needs to push for more information on what divides these preachers and how that relates to the claims of the police. Oh, it would also help to know if there are liberal churches taking part in the same event in ways that are welcomed by the Southern Decadence leaders. Where are the voices on the doctrinal left?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • The Old Bill

    “French Quarter activist Leo Watermeier said he believes the law is reasonable. “They don’t have a right to force you to hear them speak,” he said.”

    So… free speech means just moving your lips? Should TV newscasts have no audio, lest hard words fall on tender ears? Should newspapers print in invisible ink?

    “Referring to the ministers who were arrested, Johnson said it is wrong for them to say God hates anyone, but that doing so should not be illegal. ”

    Amen.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I see two possible reasons they didn’t run the alleged slurs:

    1) They didn’t want to get in trouble with the homosexual groups. Some of those groups can be very militant and we could have a situation where reporters are now afraid to report.

    2) It could be because The Times-Picayune’s agenda agrees with the homosexual agenda and they didn’t run the alleged slurs because they were offended by them.

    Either way, this seems to be turning into a situation like the “N-word,” a word which has become so verboten that it has become what the “F-word” used to be. But assuming that the alleged slurs did not use foul language, there is no reasonable excuse for not reporting them.

  • JoeMerl

    When I read “anti-gay slurs,” my immediate thought was that they were things that the newspaper considered too offensive/vulgar to print. But this makes a good point—if they don’t specify, how do we know for sure if that is the case? Here and in general, how should newspaper balance decent language with informativeness? (Censor the words, like “f-ggot,” maybe?)

  • sari

    It’s hard to imagine that only one recording was made, given the crowd, the type of parade, tourists, and the individuals involved. Doesn’t that seem kind of odd? Video would do a lot to elucidate the situation provided that media wanted to use it.

  • dalea

    Since Southern Decadence is the center of the story, it would have been helpful to know more about it. SD is what gay men call a ‘run’ or ‘gathering’, to provide some context. It is a combination party, get together, business meeting. reunion, teaching event and celebration of gay male sexuality. These are called runs because there is an association between gay guys and motorcycles that goes back at least to the 1920′s. The received story is that the only way gay men could meet during periods of persecutions, was under the cover story of being a motorcycle gang since the authorities usually steered clear of such people.

    What sets Southern Decadence apart from all the others (except for Folsom Street Fair in SF) is that it is held in a public space. What goes on is fairly typical of runs, but here the public can see the goings on. Which has drawn preachers who condemn the event. All the others are in private spaces where the public can not intrude. All the ones I have been involved with were private space events; and we never had these problems. Most were in rural settings way back from roads.

    If there are clergy present, they are either from the MCC or NeoPagan. And not much involved in public confrontation. This sort of information would have helped explain the situation. You have an event that is rarely ever put on in public places, which draws critics.

  • suburbanbanshee

    So… how is what the preachers do “aggressive solicitation,” that makes it so that the Southern Decadence festival isn’t? I mean, they both obviously espouse and advocate strong political/religious/social views, and they were both going on after dark in the French Quarter.

    For that matter, I imagine this law would ban Mardi Gras parties after sunset. Mardi Gras is a religious festival, and many of the Krewes have social messages.

  • Julia

    Suburbanbanshee: I was wondering about that myself.
    The law/regulation as written might be void for vagueness.

  • FWKen

    I wonder out the law was aimed at panhandlers or preachers. The French Quarter head a long history with both. We lived there in the late 50s and at least twice, the forces of morality “cleaned up” the Quarter, which meant the doors of the bars were closed so you couldn’t see the strippers and more obscene signage wast banned. Probably ran the prostitutes of, to, but I’m too young tip have been told about that. Anyway, I agree that we need to know why one of ths groups got arrested and one didn’t. Specific epithets may not be necessary: the aggression and placement of the witnessing may have been the main factors. Understanding the law might answer some questions.

  • FWKen

    Apologies for that. I’m posting from a phone with predictive text and lousy at proofreading on a screen.

  • northcoast

    IS LIMITED IN TIME AND SPACE!!!