Editor’s note: This story includes language used by the demonstrators that some readers may find offensive.
Shippensburg University campus leaders are responding and offering support after a group of self-described “Bible believers” drew a crowd on campus last week.
SU Police Department Chief Michael Lee identified the lead demonstrator as Pastor Aden Rusfeldt. Rusfeldt notified the university of the group’s plans to visit campus.
After visiting websites listed on the bottom of the demonstrators signs and comparing photos and accounts to a Philadelphia Inquirer article, the Slate Staff found the group is from the Key of David Christian Center, a small non-denominational church based in Philadelphia that is led by Rusfeldt.
Rusfeldt was joined by two women and another man, James Ross, who spoke with members of the Slate staff. Ross is identified as having been at another protest at Princeton University and the College of New Jersey with Aden and the Key of David Christian Center in an article from The Daily Princetonian and The Signal.
Ross said the group demonstrates on college campuses and that their goal is “to warn students about sin.”
“We go to every campus, this one isn't just getting picked on today. It's just the one that came up,” he said.
A Slate staff member first attempted to speak with Ross when he was preaching outside of the Ceddia Union Building (CUB). When the reporter introduced themself and asked to speak with them, Ross promptly asked about their sexuality. Ross refused to talk after the staff member declined to answer his questions regarding their sexuality.
When a second member of the staff asked if he would speak to them instead Ross told them, “If you’re a faggot I don’t answer you.”
Ross eventually agreed to speak to the staff members.
Representatives from different campus organizations like the Spiritual Center, the Pride Center and the Women’s Center also came out to the demonstration.
United Campus Ministry leader the Rev. Jan Bye observed the demonstrator’s actions at a nearby table outside of the CUB.
“I think they misrepresent a lot of Christian people. When folks wander by they think that Christian folks are like these judgmental, hateful, horrible name-calling kinds of people. And I think most Christians are not that way,” Bye said.
Bye said it was ironic that the group demonstrated during Holy week, where Good Friday and Easter Sunday are a celebration of grace and salvation.
She encouraged those who have a different perspective of faith than the demonstrators to use this as an opportunity to “share how their Christian faith is different than this kind of hateful rhetoric.”
The demonstrators focused on calling out students for having pre-marital sex, wearing immodest clothing and being homosexual. Rusfeldt and Ross referred to women and LGBTQ+ students with derogatory terms and slurs.
Alithia Zamantakis, Pride Center director, said these demonstrations can make students feel ostracized and affect their ability to focus on their schoolwork.
“For a lot of us who are LGBT, we have experienced this kind of oppression a long time and in these moments where it's more out in the face, it triggers being back in those same spaces where folks didn’t have much control over their lives. I think it impacts mental health in that way,” Zamantakis said.
Despite upsetting many students, the demonstrators are allowed to gather and speak on SU’s campus because the university is public property. SU Chief Diversity Officer Stephanie Jirard said the group followed university policy and let the university know in advance that it was coming. SU is a state school funded by tax dollars which makes the campus public property. The school is required by law to allow these groups to gather.
The group was exercising its First Amendment rights to freedom of expression, assembly and religion, according to Jirard.
Jirard quoted United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in regard to coping with viewpoints individuals disagree with.
Kennedy said, “The remedy for speech that is false, is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth. The theory of our Constitution is that the best test of truth is the power of thought...”
While the university cannot keep these kinds of groups from coming to campus or take action against them, students are still free to express their own opinions. Students can express themselves through organizing their own events like sit-ins, Jirard said.
The First Amendment protects ideas individuals may not want to hear, but also allows individuals to address those ideas, according to Jirard.
“We at Shippensburg embrace everyone, welcome everyone and support every single student. We condemn hatred, we condemn discrimination,” Jirard said.
She encouraged students to get together and support groups that may feel marginalized and to put thoughts and feelings into action and make a commitment to make everyone feel like they belong.
Students who may have been upset and impacted by the demonstrators can find resources and support on campus at the Women’s Center, Spiritual Center, Pride Center, the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, the dean of students office and the Counseling Center.