Last week, Consuming Fire Fellowship came to Mississippi State University’s campus to preach their religious doctrine to students on the Drill Field while the LGBTQ+ Union, a student activist group, participated in a silent protest against the church group.
This year’s visit from Consuming Fire lasted three days, and the sensitive topics caused tensions to rise, prompting the university to set up barricades on the Drill Field to separate Consuming Fire members and others on the third day.
The Fellowship members conducted their preaching near the center of the Drill Field, close to the flag pole with the LGBTQ+ Union’s tent set up closer to the Lee Hall side of the field. A gay pride flag waved from the LGBTQ+’s tent and several students in the organization carried them while handing out pamphlets about LGBTQ welcoming churches in the area.
Bailey McDaniel, president of the LGBTQ+ Union and opinion editor of The Reflector, said their organization was present at the three-day demonstration, but the events of Wednesday were upsetting to her and several members of the group.
According to McDaniel, two members of the Consuming Fire Fellowship, in particular, continually approached the student protesters directly to confront them about their salvation, telling the students they personally were sodomites and going to hell.
McDaniel said she had to intercede on behalf of several students to ask the church members to respect their silent, peaceful protest and leave them alone, to which one church member responded using a derogatory homosexual term referring to a student.
She said these students intended to file harassment charges with the MSU Police Department, but she did not go with them.
McDaniel also said the group who went to the police station, who were not comfortable coming forward to speak on record, told her when they returned they were not satisfied with their treatment by the police officers they came in contact with.
MSU Police Chief Vance Rice said MSU’s Title IV officer Brett Harvey contacted Rice about a complaint filed against MSU PD by Union members. Rice said there was little the police could do for the students at the time regarding Consuming Fire complaints.
“The things that were being said to them (by Consuming Fire) were horrible, but from what the students described, it was all protected speech and was not illegal,” Rice said. “The easiest solution we could give them was to tell them to walk away.”
Monday, Rice as well as Hyatt attended a Safe Zone training session, something Rice had signed up for well in advance of Consuming Fire’s visit.
The state of Mississippi’s harassment law prohibits disturbing the peace through loud and offensive speech, making threats, attempting to intimidate others, or other conduct that causes a disturbance.
Regina Hyatt, vice president of student affairs at MSU, said maintaining free speech on campus is important.
“The law is pretty clear, in terms of what public colleges and universities can do as it relates to the expression of speech on campus,” Hyatt said. “The prevailing thought is that colleges and universities have to be open as the ‘marketplace of ideas.’”
After several emails back and forth with Dean of Students, Thomas Bourgeois about the hostile environment on the Drill Field Wednesday, several security measures were implemented Thursday.
A metal fence was erected into a circle for the church members to stay inside of, and barriers were placed around the LGBTQ+ Union tent.
“The help we received on Thursday was amazing, but my problem is, look at what it took in order for us to get that help,” McDaniel said. “It seemed like (Consuming Fire Fellowship) had more right to be there than we did and I didn’t understand that.”
McDaniel, a sophomore criminology major, said she made sure to tell students wishing to confront Consuming Fire members to move away from the silent protesters in the interest of distancing any confrontation from the LGBTQ+ protest.
Hyatt said students and faculty may not agree with the words of the church members, but freedom of speech means hearing both sides, not only the one the majority agrees with.
McDaniel said she met with several university officials Wednesday, including Bourgeois and Hyatt, about the situation on the Drill Field.
“I know I’m not these people’s mom, but I am the leader of this organization. I’m supposed to help them feel safe and they weren’t feeling safe,” McDaniel said.
Hyatt said if the university does not allow the church group to demonstrate on campus, they are not only breaking the law, but also giving up the right of students on campus to voice their opinions openly on the Drill Field.
“That’s what this is all about. We’re all entitled to share our own opinions, and unfortunately, sometimes the way people choose to do that is more hurtful than others,” Hyatt said.
McDaniel said she did not have an issue with the MSU Police Department or its officers because she was not present to see what really happened with the other students from the organization.
Hyatt said it is important that MSU students feel safe and supported by the university to be who they are in an open forum, but the university’s duty to an open campus throws these ideas into conflict.
“We want students to feel like this is a safe and welcoming environment, and we want to do that in whatever ways that we can, while also honoring our obligation to ensure that the university is an open and public environment,” Hyatt said.
Editor’s Note: Bailey McDaniel is the Opinion Editor of The Reflector as well as President of the LGBTQ+ Union. She was not involved in any aspect of the writing or editing process for this article.