New Orleans, Bourbon Street and Street Preaching: A Case of Religious Persecution?

New Orleans, Bourbon Street and Street Preaching: A Case of Religious Persecution? September 23, 2012

According to several news reports I have read, the City of New Orleans and its police department are attempting to stop street preaching on Bourbon Street after dark. Some preachers have been arrested, but a judge has slapped an injunction on the city to stop it from enforcing the ordinance until a hearing can be held on the preachers’ claim that their freedom of speech is being abridged.

Here is what one GLBT community leader said about preaching on Bourbon Street: “I certainly have issues with their argument. I don’t think that freedom of speech should trump my right to life, libery and the pursuit of happiness,” said Mary Griggs, Director of the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans. Griggs says religious groups with bullhorns go against the spirit of Bourbon Street.”

They certainly do. Which is exactly why they should be there.

Let me confess that, on a few occasions, I have walked down the middle of Bourbon Street after dark. I was attending a convention of religion scholars held at large hotels on Canal Street which is one of the boundaries of the French Quarter. Walking on Bourbon Street is the most natural thing to do because many of the best restaurants are there–but mixed in with some of the most decadent establishments in America and perhaps the world.

Here is what I have observed on  Bourbon Street: Doors wide open to strip clubs where anyone walking down the street (it’s a pedestrian zone) can hardly avoid seeing naked dancers. Children being dragged along by their parents past such establishments, the children staring into them with their mouths open and eyes wide. (What are those parents thinking?) Young men and women selling their bodies on the sidewalks. Crowds of drunken people pushing and shoving, vomiting, screaming and throwing things. People of all ages break dancing and playing musical instruments for money, people selling food of all kinds, pornography shops with their doors and windows wide open, “card shops” displaying pornographic pictures–right inside the front door so that you see them from the sidewalk.

The place is unbelievably loud, smelly, disgusting, revolting, crowded. You can’t walk more than a few yards without some guy trying to drag you into a peep show or strip club. Men and women baring their breasts and showing their genitals (from on balconies of hotels and below looking up). People throwing all kinds of objects around in the crowd.

All that was seen on normal Friday and Saturday nights–without any special parade or festivals happening.

Now, I ask, how could a few street preachers be disruptive or in any way interfere with anyone doing anything there? They can’t. So far as I have been able to tell from the articles I have read, they were not physically accosting anyone. Sure, they were loud, but so is everything on Bourbon Street! (Except the several upscale Cajun and Creole restaurants.)

From what I have read, this ordinance and the attempt to enforce it by arresting peaceful street preachers is nothing other than religious persecution. They can’t possibly be any louder than the screaming, yelling, hawking, barking drunken men and women lurching down the street, leaning over the hotel balconies, dancing, playing musical instruments, etc., all up and down the ten blocks or so of the pedestrian zone.

What ought to be illegal is minors on Bourbon Street–especially after dark.

I hope Christians of all denominations will see the threat to religious freedom inherent in this ordinance and its enforcement and write to the mayor and city council persons. Let’s hope and pray that a judge rules the ordinance unconstitutional and allows the street preachers to return to their activities.

I’m not supporting all the tactics used by street preachers. And I’m not opposing reasonable city ordinances regulating noise levels in public. My point is that any ordinance aimed at street preaching on Bourbon Street is so obviously discriminatory against religious speech because of the nature of the activities there–all loud, obnoxious, confrontational, boisterous in the extreme, obscene, etc., etc. (Not everything on Bourbon Street is that, but the general atmosphere is that.)

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  • Reminds me of this scene from Acts.

    Act 19:23-25 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth.

    Good reminder why I don’t have New Orleans on my bucket list of places to visit.

    • rogereolson

      There are many beautiful places and things in New Orleans. Go there, but stay away from Bourbon Street if you don’t have a strong stomach for decadence and public immorality and indecency. The rest of the French Quarter is amazingly attractive and interesting.

  • I totally agree. I was there for a convention some years ago and was dumbfounded by the lewdness and open drunkenness. And also the crime. One friend told me he and his wife barely escaped being mugged by a gang when they were walking along the Riverwalk. In my hotel room, the greeting folder issued a warning: “Many guests assume that it is safe to jog alone in busy downtown areas in the daytime. We do not, however, recommend this at anytime.”

    I remember walking past a preacher one night on Bourbon street. He was a little pushy, and couldn’t be convinced that I was on his “team” already. But I totally agree with you — more power to the street preachers. What a shocking place.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Thank you for your thoughts Roger. I was reminded of what the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport did to freedom of speech (religious speech) some years ago. If you remember, airports long ago were haunted by fringe religious groups accosting travelers – trying to sell them flowers or some such thing (remember the movie, Airplane?). To not deny freedom of religious expression, yet to take travelers’ complaints to heart, the airport instituted a couple “Freedom-of-speech booths” near the baggage claim. When I went to the airport as a courier, the booths were either empty or occupied with 2 very bored looking JWs. Maybe it was a reasonable compromise.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, at the heart of my complaint is the nature of Bourbon Street. It’s far from the MSP airport (in terms of any sense of decorum).

  • Greg D

    I don’t think this is persecution… yet. If and when the city officially bans street preaching and the preachers return, only to get accosted by others and arrested by the police then this would be persecution. But, having a right simply taken away is not persecution in of itself. Christians living in hostile countries like Iran or Sudan would balk at this example of “persecution” where a person is mutilated and often times killed for converting to Christianity. I often times roll my eyes when American Christians yell “persecution”. Because they simply are clueless.

    • rogereolson

      According to some news reports, some Bourbon Street preachers have been arrested.

      • Greg D

        But I would be curious to find out if these street preachers were arrested on grounds of religious intolerance or because they were infringing upon another ordinance. Several months ago there were articles floating around the blogosphere of a Christian house pastor who claimed he was being persecuted by the city for meeting in their home and having Bible studies. Everyone was crying, “persecution”. Come to find out, this pastor infringed upon zoning laws by building a church structure in his backyard that would seat hundreds of people.

        Sorry for being such a skeptic. But, in 99% of the cases of people claiming “Christian persecution” in America, it’s not persecution, but a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of laws and ordinances. And, perhaps a twisting and distorting of reality too.

        • rogereolson

          Well, I don’t know about “99%.” But I agree that often Christians and others cry “persecution!” when it’s not really persecution. All I can do is go on the several news articles I read about the incidents on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I didn’t see any mention of the street preachers violating any ordinances except the ones passed by the city to stop them and others from preaching/speaking in the open air. A judge apparently agreed that, prima facie, their religious and free speech rights were being violated. We’ll see where it goes from here. But does anyone really believe religious persecution doesn’t exist in America? In my opinion, as I have said here before, laws that criminalize Christian behavior (e.g., humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants) constitute religious persecution.

      • Frank

        One of those street preachers assaulted a police officer. Also Baptists street preachers routinely call innocent bystanders “sodomites,” “whores,” and “sluts.” They also use bullhorns to do so.

        • rogereolson

          Um, that was not reported as the reason street preachers were arrested on Bourbon Street. And I’m sure the judge wouldn’t have granted an injunction if that were the only reason street preachers were being arrested or banned from preaching there. As for what some street preachers call some people on Bourbon Street–I’m sure SOME of the people on Bourbon Street deserve those appellations and take pride in them.

    • John I.

      I’d include the law within the meaning of the word “persecution”, as I believe that laws in and of themselves can be and establish persecution.

    • Rob

      I have heard servicemen and women say that they would die to protect the rights guaranteed by the constitution. Are they clueless? Isn’t the fact that have people willing to die (and kill) to protect those rights what separates us from Iran and makes us a better nation? Furthermore, isn’t an aversion to things like this just part of being vigilant so that worse things don’t happen?
      Second, it simply can’t be the case that the worst sort of persecution swamps all the lesser forms and excludes them from the category of persecution. For every story of persecution, we can find one that is worse. So what? That doesn’t mean the other cases of persecution do not constitute genuine persecution. Verbal battery is not as bad as physical battery but it is still a form of assault on someone is it not?
      I would think that being excluded from the rights and privileges of one’s society is an injury that we as Americans take seriously. Why else would we have a bill of rights attached to the constitution? If those rights are serious enough to defend in other contexts (freedom of speech, assembly, etc) why not defend them when it comes to religion.

  • With [some of] the city officials of New Orleans it’s all about MONEY. They could care less about MORALS. We have a scriptural example of this very thing (amazingly similar) where Paul and Silas visited Philippi and cast the fortune-telling demonic spirit out of a young slave girl who, in turn, gave all her earnings to her pimping owners. Paul and Silas, whose street evangelism had negatively impacted the raucous tourist attractions together with the city’s tainted income, were arrested and imprisoned by the city officials (see Acts 16:16-24). LESSONS: (1) Only the gospel messege and its ethic is powerful enough to put a stop to lecherous living. (2) They couldn’t stop street evangelism 2000 years ago and it will be impossible to completely stop street-witnessing today.

    • rogereolson

      I interpolated “some of” because we have no way of knowing about every city official of any city, but we can assume that, in that one, like in most, some care more about money than morals. To say all would be beyond the scope of our ability to know.

  • Craig Wright

    This situation at Bourbon Street seems like a unique situation, because, in general, my response to street preachers with a bullhorn is Matt. 12: 18-21 “…he will not quarrel, nor cry out; nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets…”

    • Mark Nieweg

      Yes Craig! That is what I was thinking when I read this post. When I read anything that blends “rights” with “a way of doing things” as Christians engage any number of things in this country in particular, I wince. Do we really understand Jesus’ “way” in these conversations? From “these preachers are not any noisier than the crowd” to “our young men and women servicemen would fight to protect these rights,” what are we mixing up? Americans leave a lot to be desired so much in terms of discernment I wonder if we will ever get it right. For example, what is fascinating about mentioning Paul’s experience with the slave girl at Philippi is that they were on their way to prayer and the slave girl was shouting “listen to these men….” Who wouldn’t want that kind of attention today to preach the gospel? It is when Paul acts that they are then dragged to the marketplace and accused. Now, I am not against street preaching per say. Again, it is how it is done and our lack of reasoning behind that, focusing instead on some “right” that concerns me.

  • Your post reminded me of my experience at the world famous Edinburgh festival in Scotland some years ago. I had been invited to it long with a group from the Belfast City Mission to do some street evangelism during the festival so we decided to set up our BCM board outside St Giles Cathedral, the home of the Scottish Reformation and the fiery Reformer John Knox. The city was packed and people were handed various handbills inviting them to various entertainment establishments including transvestite clubs etc. Well, to cut a long story short, we were moved on by the organisers because we didn’t have permission to do some sketch board evangelism outside the church!
    Undeterred, I decided to go into the Cathedral and was able to do some personal evangelism among the tourists there. One such tourist, a woman from Germany was looking at the statue of John Knox but knew nothing of his significance or even her own country’s significance with regard to the Reformation. I was therefore able to explain to her about Luther’s experience of salvation of faith and how it came finally came to Scotland.
    It is very sad situation today that Christians can be forbidden to share the life changing Good News of the gospel, which the founding fathers based their lives upon, while corrupting influences that promote poor morality are more than tolerated.

  • J.E. Edwards

    I always find it interesting that the very folks crying tolerance don’t live by the very definition of tolerance they expect others to live by. Thanks for the heads up, Roger.

  • Michael Meadows


  • Jason Follis

    Here is what one GLBT community leader said about preaching on Bourbon Street: “I certainly have issues with their argument. I don’t think that freedom of speech should trump my right to life, libery and the pursuit of happiness,” said Mary Griggs, Director of the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans. Griggs says religious groups with bullhorns go against the spirit of Bourbon Street.”

    Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965). Hecklers may not be allowed to veto a speaker’s right of free speech. Police must control a crowd rather than arrest the speaker in order to maintain order. Regulations may be imposed on free speech to control traffic flow.

    Louisiana has been down this road before. For now our constitution has given us the right to preach in the open air, Sadly we do not take advantage of it as often as we should. However, we would do well to remember that the Gospel is offensive by itself so we should try to not be offensive at all in our actions.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, but my point was that much that is allowed on Bourbon Street after dark is offensive. How is street preaching more offensive, more distruptive than the ordinary activities of many people there? I have walked down Bourbon Street after dark several times and always been accosted, confronted by barking people trying to get me to come into their “establishments.” The noise is unbelievable and the sights horrible. The police do nothing (that I have observed) to control any of it–except now, apparently, street preaching.

  • Chuck

    It is an interesting country where the street preachers can be silenced by a local law while the maker of the anti-muslim movie that recently instigated so much blood shed is supported by the federal government on the basis of freedom of speech. Where are we headed?

  • How come Katrina was not enough to wipe out these Sodom and Gomorrah? Was there more then ten righteous persons needed to be saved?
    Parents – what reason is there for you dragging your children along with yourselves there, eh? for God’s sake.

    • Frank

      “How come Katrina was not enough to wipe out these Sodom and Gomorrah? Was there more then ten righteous persons needed to be saved?”

      The French Quarter was built on the highest land for miles around. The original city was built there because it would be unlikely to be flooded by seasonal variations in the height of the river or hurricane storm surges.

      The area hit hardest by Katrina was Louisiana State Senate District 1, comprised by Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Orleans, and St. Tammany parishes. This is the district of state senator A. G. Crowe, a Baptists Sunday school teacher, who sponsored SB217, a bill legalizing the banning of LGBT students from publicly funded charter schools, which have replaced most public schools in Louisiana. Hurricane Isaac hit the SAME DISTRICT ON EXACTLY THE SAME ROUTE but with MORE FLOODING in Plaquemines and St. Bernard, two rural conservative parishes.

      Maybe the Baptists are the ones being judge harshly by God.