By Erika Webb
It's a matter of Constitutional rights, but whose?
DeLand merchant John Ingles resumed dialogue with the DeLand City Commission this month because he's had it with what's happening in front of his downtown business, still.
Mr. Ingles opened the Musicians Exchange at the southwest corner of Woodland Boulevard and New York Avenue two years ago.
Recently he's been closing his music store on Fridays because, he said, encroaching evangelism is costing him customers and peace.
The story of those who take to street corners on Friday afternoons is now decades old.
It's a rock-scissors-paper conundrum and city commission-plaguing war without truce.
Through generations of elected officials, the city has tried to navigate the narrow road between the preachers' right to free speech, the public's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, merchants' rights to earn a living unimpeded, and the general safety of all involved.
It's been a rocky ride.
Members of the Bible Baptist Church on Glenwood Road reiterate they have the right to free speech and assembly.
Many merchants agree but take issue with how these rights are carried out.
"It's the way they say it," Mr. Ingles said. "They yell and scream and tell people they're going to hell."
Alissa Lapinsky owns the A-List Salon at 106 S. Woodland Blvd., a few doors down from Mr. Ingles' shop. She's been there for five years and a lot of Friday evenings.
"I'm fine with them being there. I don't like it when they're so loud I can hear them in my shop over my music," Ms. Lapinsky said. "And I don't like them accosting my clients. I don't like having to apologize to my clients for someone else's actions ... how someone else treats my clients."
Years have yielded untold numbers of complaints from shoppers, diners, pedestrians and people employed in the downtown area. Complaints that sign-bearing message carriers foist religious pamphlets at them, yell, threaten and, in some cases, grab arms to get passersby to stop and listen or accept the printed messages.
Mr. Ingles, who said he had been warned by other merchants, quickly saw and heard for himself.
"They get in front of people, shove pamphlets at them, block their path and hinder their way," Mr. Ingles told Hometown News in a phone interview after the Jan. 21 commission meeting, where he spoke to elected officials once again.
Tired of the shouting, he countered with loud music generated outside his store.
His new nemeses brandished bullhorns to blast Bible verses at passing motorists.
It all ended up in the city's lap.
The city has been careful, to a fault some say, to protect the preachers' right to free speech.
In June 2012, DeLand Police Chief Bill Ridgway, City Attorney Darren Elkind, Mr. Ingles and Attorney Richard "Jake" Jackson -- a sidewalk scripture sharing member of the Bible Baptist Church -- all tried to negotiate a restrained resolution to the deafening debate.
An agreement was reached that all parties would try to peaceably coexist.
"I've just started again, kicking this hornets' nest," Mr. Ingles said. "I stopped because the chief asked me to because he brokered a deal with them. They stopped yelling for about two weeks and then started up again."
Mr. Ingles cited the Declaration of Independence, saying all men are endowed, not by government edict, but by a higher order -- their creator -- with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness wherein lies the right to work to make a living, "unhindered," he emphasized.
And because the "Declaration of Independence set forth the ideas and principles behind a just and fair government, and the Constitution outlined how this government would function," according to www.uscis.gov, Mr. Ingles said the city needs to take a harder look at rights vs. rights.
"They're saying constitutional law trumps my right, given by my creator," Mr. Ingles said. "Free speech is a secular law. The Declaration of Independence declares my right to work in pursuit of my own happiness is given by my creator."
Furthermore, Mr. Ingles said, the "trade or occupation" he chose is being stopped on Fridays because the Christian wooers "intimidate people by their conduct."
James Smorto of DeLand is one of those people.
"I've been harassed by them in the past," Mr. Smorto said in a phone interview. "They threw literature in front of my eyes and didn't want me to pass. That's why I usually don't go down there any more on Fridays."
"My opinion is something is going to happen one day, somebody's going to get hurt," he added.
Recently a heated discussion on the popular Facebook page, You Know You're From DeLand If, prompted him to create a separate page solely devoted to allowing the viewpoints of both sides to be aired.
"DeLand's Friday Afternoon Protesters" was launched on Facebook Jan. 26. By Jan 31, there were 114 "Likes" with over 400 page views and 33 people discussing the matter at around noon that day.
"It wouldn't have been a problem if these people weren't so aggressive," Mr. Smorto said.
Kylie Badeau is the page's administrator. Early on, she opened the discussion:
"I would like to hear from any of you that have had a bad or good experience in the past 25 years with the Bible Baptist Church's 'street preaching.' Any experiences at all."
"I was downtown at one of the October bike fest events," commented Chrissy Harvey of DeLand. "My kids were very young, 5 months and a year. I was holding my youngest and this lady was persistent on giving me this flyer. I kept telling her no. She shoved me and took off."
Ms. Badeau said she's been joining the Bible Baptist members on the corner since the beginning of October. Jan 31 would be her 17th consecutive week. She shares the corner, but not their views.
Others have joined her.
"We're all from different backgrounds and religious beliefs," Ms. Badeau said.
She has spoken to Mr. Jackson, whom she said has been nice and respectful toward her.
"I asked about a screaming man. I asked, statistically how many does that bring to (the) church?" she said. "Mr. Jackson said that they are just very passionate in sharing their convictions."
Amid the signs: "For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is ETERNAL LIFE"; "Jesus Saves -- you must be born again;" "Be sure your sin will find you out; and simply, "Trust Jesus" there are now others.
There are signs in favor of legalizing marijuana and gay marriage; a sign holder proclaimed he supports non-profit organizations; another declared he's going to hell -- a smiley face punctuated the declaration. One man held a sign reading, "Austin 3:16."
The police chief said street preaching is not unique to DeLand.
"I think the problem is starting to escalate with this other group's presence," Chief Ridgway said.
Situations like this one usually are enforced through city ordinance, he explained, adding there are two on the books, but they are too vague and ambiguous to be enforceable.
The words "annoyance" and "hindrance" contained in the current ordinances are not specific enough to determine fault, he said.
"Clearly it's their First Amendment Right to espouse their views," he said. "Where it gets sticky is at what noise level?"
Chief Ridgway said he and Attorney Elkind plan to sit down and review case law in order to make a recommendation to commissioners at an upcoming meeting.
Among the things to be decided for an ordinance pertaining to assembly are time, place and manner, he said, hastening to add Mr. Elkind, rather than the police chief, will determine what needs to be written and how.
Clear language will reveal discernible violation or non-violation, he explained.
"I don't make laws in the City of DeLand. I enforce them. If the commission decides it's a problem for the public as a whole, they're going to have to do something we feel is legal to enforce," he said. "If you want the behavior to stop you're gonna have to be able to enforce it."
Mr. Ingles said the ordinances (21-02 and 21-08) are not vague, but he has a suggestion for the city.
"One way would be to establish a buffer zone," he said. "That's the way to write the law, say they're not allowed within 35 feet of an open business."
He said he won't back down this time because the Bible belters' conduct stops commerce downtown on Friday afternoon, plain and simple.
"It's not about bringing people to Jesus because they drive people away," Mr. Ingles said. "It's about increasing salvation sales every Sunday."
What our group is attempting to do is to obey Jesus' instruction to "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel," Mr. Jackson wrote in an emailed response to questions. "The messages on our signs is "the gospel:" the message of good news that Christ died for our sins, that he rose again, and that all who put their trust and faith in him as the risen Son of God will receive complete forgiveness of sins and everlasting life."
"The people who are peacefully assembling on the public sidewalk to present their various messages are exercising their fundamental constitutional rights," Mr. Jackson added.
Around 5 p.m. on Jan. 31 the church members and other sign holders supporting various causes, were present on all four corners of the busy intersection. All were quiet and behaving tolerantly toward one another.
Pastor James Knox of the Bible Baptist Church was calm, affable and even demonstrated a sense of humor when approached. He pointed to several nearby businesses that have been open all along, apparently, he said, unscathed by the message bearing.
The intent, he added, is not to harm.
"I've been doing this every Friday afternoon since 1985 and every five years or so a business owner will decide our activities are hurting his or her business," Pastor Knox said. "Every time they have reviewed this with the city commission and the city attorney, they have always correctly found that our activities are legal and proper and we are confident they will do so again."