published Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Protests surround sermons on UTC campus

  • photo
    Josh Robinette, Ellie Cesternino and Sarah-Kelly McGinnis, from left, sit down away from the larger crowd at Heritage Plaza on the University of Chattanooga at Tennessee campus on Monday. The trio where protesting the presence of evangelistic speakers on campus. Last week a UTC student was arrested after confronting speaker Angela Cummings.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

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    Jeff Garner addresses the crowd gathered to protest evangelistic speakers at Heritage Plaza on the University of Chattanooga at Tennessee campus on Monday. Garner was holding a large sign that read "Turing the Grace of God into a License to Sin" and was speaking his religious beliefs.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

Poll
Should law enforcement protect street preachers?

They came with chalk, pizza boxes and copies of the Bible.

Three days after UTC police arrested student Cole Philip Montalvo -- and cell videos of the incident went viral on the Internet -- hundreds of people congregated in the campus' free speech zone Monday to consider whether last week's police actions were appropriate.

All the while, UTC police and security continued to stand guard near Angela Cummings and the other street preachers of Highways and Hedges Ministries, who have been the focal point of campus tension for more than two weeks.

"We students don't want (Cummings) here anymore," said UTC junior Taylor Ingro. "We've been asking students to come sit with us so she won't be able to use the space."

Students gathered at noon Monday, a half-hour before Cummings or her preaching colleagues were scheduled to use the free-speech zone at 12:30 p.m. They chalked a thick, blue symbolic circle -- "BIKES WELCOME" -- and read the poetry of W. H. Auden, calling upon their peers for a peaceful afternoon of discussion.

Ingro spent the rest of her afternoon perched on a tall, brick lightpost, asking her fellow students to sign a Change.org petition to remove the University-permitted speakers.

Junior Shane Perry was passing around his iPhone to help strangers sign the online document, and helped a dozen sign the petition on his device.

The petition addressed to UT system President Joe DiPietro simply asks him to "stop allowing verbally abusive protesters to scream on UTC's campus."

The petition had more than 1,900 supporters as of Monday night. However, the unofficial document -- with no formal sponsor -- might not result in anything more than a formal airing of grievances.

Cummings is associated with another preacher who recently prevailed against UT-Knoxville in a free speech lawsuit.

"At this time, the campus has no legal basis upon which to deny permission for the speakers to access campus," UTC Chancellor Steve Angle said in a news release. "Although the manner of the preacher's presentation is offensive to many and causes strong responses, the freedom of expression so valued in this country requires enduring protected speech with which we disagree."

Angle said that noise, however, is an issue of University concern not related to Cummings' message. Classes have been disrupted by her style of sermonizing, which includes speaking in a powerful voice. Students and professors alike are asked to call the Jim Hicks, UTC's dean of students, if "a presentation becomes loud enough that the class cannot continue."

Lt. John Boe, one of the four UTC officers who arrested Montalvo on Friday, was standing 50 feet away from Monday's sermon with a microphone in his hand. As Cummings spoke "passionately" about heaven and hell, he was quietly measuring her decibel level.

"If she reaches a certain level, where we realize it is a detriment to the educational process, we can make her leave," he said.

Boe said he could not disclose the exact cutoff point for which Cummings' tone could become a "detriment," but her speech from 3:30 to 4 p.m. frequently stayed near 75 decibels -- the average loudness of a vacuum cleaner.

According to a UTC facility permit, Cummings is scheduled to return to the campus for "evangelism" and "gospel truths" today, Wednesday and Nov. 25-27.

Angle hopes her appearances on campus will give UTC students a learning opportunity.

"By conducting ourselves with tolerance, dignity, and respect for others, we become living examples of the type of environment we want for our campus, and by standing together, we shall achieve," he said.

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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