MORGANTON, North Carolina — A Christian evangelist witnessing at a public festival in North Carolina this past weekend was forced to put away a wooden cross that he was holding as police asserted that it could be considered a “dangerous weapon.”
Brothers Jesse and Matthew Boyd, along with friend Kent Blalock, attended the 32nd annual Historic Morganton Festival on Saturday to open-air preach, distribute Gospel literature and hold Scripture-based signs as a witness to attendees. Matthew carried a small 3-pound wooden cross that bears the question “Are You Ready?” and folds away when not in use.
The men state that even before they attended the event, they became aware that there could be problems in light of the festival rules, which barred free speech activity on the streets. In turn, Jesse contacted City Attorney Louis Vinay to express concern, sending him a compilation of relevant case law that protected free speech activity at public events.
Most notably, the evangelists–and anyone else who wished to engage in free speech–would have been required to stand in a “free speech zone,” which was located two blocks outside of the event and away from the crowds.
“We saw these rules being promulgated online, and they were clearly egregious and unconstitutional violations of free speech, so we did everything in our power to alert the authorities about our position on the matter,” Jesse told Christian News Network. “I believe that if we had just gone in there without raising concerns ahead of time, they would have tried to stop us, and perhaps arrest us.”
However, when the men arrived at the festival, they soon learned that organizers and police had a problem with more than just the evangelists’ presence inside the event. Approximately 30 minutes after setting up at a busy public intersection, the Boyds and Blalock were approached by the festival organizer, Sharon Jablonski, who said that it was against the rules for the Christians to hold signs and distribute tracts within the festival.
“It was just very politely stated to her that we were not going to stop, and that the rules did not supersede our rights as American citizens under the Constitution,” Matthew explained. “We’re on a public street; you can’t just make [your own] rules.”
Jablonski then convened with police, and after a while, she approached the evangelists with a man that identified as Chief Mark Tolbert.
“The chief then focused in on the cross, saying that it was a violation of the [city’s] sign ordinance, and we just kind of went back and forth, … [explaining that] the language of the ordinance did not apply here,” Matthew recalled, as Jesse noted that the law pertained to poles and other objects used to hoist signs that could be sharp or injurious.
However, what Tolbert contended next shocked and baffled the men.
“He kept referring to [the cross] as a dangerous weapon,” Matthew said, “or a possible dangerous weapon.”
“I responded to the chief and said, ‘To be honest with you chief, you’re right,'” Jesse recalled. “The cross, spiritually speaking, is a deadly weapon in terms of of the sin nature and the devils who want to overthrow Christ and his reign. So, yes, it is a deadly weapon.”
But he also told Tolbert that his assertion was absurd in a practical sense.
“I said to the chief, ‘Sir, you know we’re out here peacefully. Our entire approach is peaceful, and just because something could be used as a deadly weapon doesn’t mean it is,'” Jesse explained. “I said, ‘That walkie-talkie attached to your shirt could be a deadly weapon if you swung it and hit somebody in the head with it.'”
The evangelists stated that they were also perplexed as to why they were being targeted when numerous attendees–including children–were walking around with wooden Samurai swords that were being sold by a vendor.
“We train with these at my Aikido club, and they are deadly weapons,” Jesse noted. “There were people with light sabers and plastic swords and all kinds of things that could have been a deadly weapon, and yet the police chose to zero in on this ‘Are You Ready’ cross.”
As the evangelists continued to disagree with the application of the statute, the officers convened for approximately a half an hour to discuss the matter. During this time, Jablonski again approached the Boyds and Blalock to advise that the evangelists could either put their tracts and signs away and only speak to people, go to the free speech zone to conduct their activities, or leave the event altogether.
“And Kent made the statement to her that we’re not putting our signs up and we’re going to continue to hand out tracts, and we’re not going to follow your suggestions,” Matthew stated. “And that’s when the major came up with the chief and said that the cross had to go. He said, ‘This is your last chance.'”
At this point, the men then agreed to put the cross away and continue with their other evangelistic activities, but commented how they believed it was foolish for police to exert their efforts on a wooden cross being held by Christian missionaries.
“[There were] people who were clearly drunk, and the officers are focusing an hour or more of their time convening, trying to figure out what they’re going to do with some street preachers,” Matthew said. “To me, it’s just absurd.”
“This was just a classic case of [police] trying to appease some festival organizers who chose to zero in on the preachers and ignore all the other violations of their rules,” Jesse stated.
In the end, the evangelists said that God used their time at the festival, as a group of girls soon approached after witnessing the situation and joined the men in handing out Gospel tracts. Another attendee who had planned on attending a country music concert at the festival also fell under conviction, and likewise joined the evangelists in distributing tracts to the masses.
“That’s what it’s about,” Matthew said.