For at least two days every semester members from Gideons International, an evangelical Christian group that distributes Bibles in over 180 countries, continues its mission at Tyler Junior College, distributing green-backed versions of the New Testament to passers-by. Although these actions tend to spark debates about the existence of a higher deity, this is hardly the question at hand. Believers and non-believers alike argue whether or not evangelical groups from any religion should be allowed near or on public institutions.
Gideons International employs local Protestant men to deliver versions of the New Testament to prisoners, emergency personnel, students in the fifth grade and above, and any individuals Gideons come in contact with personally, using money from private donations to purchase Bibles. Not only do Gideons personally pass out the text, but Gideon Bibles are also placed in hotels, hospitals, medical offices, prisons, domestic violence shelters and convalescent homes worldwide.
Earlier this month, men from East Texas took shifts passing out Bibles around the Pirtle Technology building near the intersection of South Mahon Avenue and East Lake Street. The local Gideon camp in Tyler was given permission by TJC to proceed with their work, whereas previous attempts to do the same at The University of Texas at Tyler had failed.
“UT-Tyler won’t allow us on campus,” James Norrell, a Gideons member from Canton said. “We don’t go anywhere we’re not allowed. If we’re not welcome, we’re not welcome.”
Bibles are also made available to school districts, including Tyler Independent School District, as Gideons deliver special red-backed versions to fifth graders. According to Norrell, some schools request that Bibles be delivered at the beginning of the year so that they can be used as reading material. Norrell also noted that these schools, which include a campus in Edgewood, “are not held accountable,” but choose to use the Bibles on their own accord.
“All we do is hand them out and let the Lord do the work,” Norrell said. “[Gideons International is] just a ministry that wants to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to read the little book. It’s not a forceful thing; if you want one, you can have one.”
Many agree that the Gideons on campus appear to be as unobtrusive as possible.
“I don’t think it’s a problem because [their message] is not being taught, it’s just being given out,” said Jessica Thrash, a TJC sophomore who is not offended by their presence. “Religious lobbyists are in Washington all the time.”
Thrash also agrees that the Gideons’ messages are not threatening.
“These men, unless they begin beating kids with Bibles, are doing nothing wrong. It’s public property,” Thrash said.
One of the biggest parts of the debate lies in where Gideons are allowed to stand. Members of the group are allowed to stand in certain areas, such as the street or sidewalk, which do not constitute school property. However, this is nearly an impossible task when handing-out items and meeting pedestrians – the majority of which are students.
The boundaries between city and school are clearly defined for Jesse Morrell, founder of Open Air Outreach, another evangelical Christian group made up of members who “utterly refuse to merely go to church rather than actually be the church.”
Open Air Outreach tours campuses and public places nationwide and visited TJC most recently last September. Members utilized methods of open-air preaching and Bible distribution, carrying bold signs and images with phrases like “Jesus saves us from Hell” overlaid on a fiery background.
Morrell ran into significant problems, not only with the campus itself but with protesting pedestrians. Morrell’s group positioned themselves on the street in the same intersection that Gideons use and caused uproar among students and officials until campus security intervened.
Morrell claims that he has had a long, turbulent history with TJC. In 2004, he was escorted off campus by officials for his unique, forceful approach to preaching the Gospel, and later he was charged with trespassing when he was spotted on campus property. Morrell claims that when he asked officials if any application to demonstrate existed, or what the surrounding areas that were city property were, he was given no answer. Since then, Open Air Outreach has stayed away from school boundaries and remained within city property onthe street, yet they are still monitored by Campus Safety.
“Essentially, we don’t have free speech zones,” said Dr. Austin Lane, the Vice President of Student Affairs at TJC. Students and off-campus groups can demonstrate as long as TJC can regulate the time, place and manner of the demonstration. Off-campus groups like the Gideons and Morrell’s have to send an application at least 48 to 72 hours in advance, but doing so isn’t a guarantee.
“We reserve the right to deny any request,” Lane said. “We can also approve it if we think it’s going to benefit the students.”
Lane recalls that during the recent visit from the Gideons, one member was spotted on school property in the doorway of the Ornelas Physical Health Center and was told to vacate. Once he complied, he and the other members continued their work on city property undisturbed. Lane also said that because of the unobtrusive nature of the Gideons, they “don’t go through the normal process because they stand in the streets.”
Although there is a contrast between Gideons International and Open Air Outreach’s methods, their intent to make the Bible available to students is the same. While Gideons appear to utilize a message of hope and Open Air Outreach appears to utilize one of fear, it is not for public school officials to decide which is more appropriate. If TJC is turning a blind eye to where the Gideons stand while removing Morrell’s group, then they are favoring one method over another.
Furthermore, if TJC treats one Christian organization differently from another, what controversy will arise when non-Christian or non-religious groups wish to demonstrate on campus as well? If a militant group were to stand on sidewalks near TJC and peacefully pass out literature just as the Gideons do, will they also be ignored by campus officials?
While Gideons and Open Air Outreach both limit themselves to city property, their close proximity to TJC and the fact that they are preaching to students cause some to argue that this is a clash between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, since streets and sidewalks fall under the city’s jurisdiction, the problem is not the separation of church and state, but that TJC officials lack the ability to regulate demonstrations near campus.
It is gray areas like these that eventually lead to lawsuits and unrest, and it is easy to see why many campuses refuse to have “free speech zones.” However, it is important to have different organizations near college campuses to promote the free exchange of ideas. But it’s equally important that if TJC officials have to monitor the groups they do so fairly.
Every off-campus organization should go through the same application process to demonstrate on the campus. If TJC allows outside demonstrators on campus, officials should not have the right to deny any group because they don’t believe the group’s message is beneficial to students.
If a college campus is truly the beginning of adulthood, then life-altering decisions like religious belief or political principles should be made by students and not school officials. In an age where students are bombarded with messages constantly, aren’t they mature enough to decide for themselves which religious group they want to listen to?
No one wants a battleground outside of their building, and TJC officials
would save themselves some grief by clearly setting a standard that all organizations should be held to. The same rules should apply for all or none at all.