Local, On campus

Religion and Freedom Collide

Religion is the belief in and worship of a higher power or powers, especially a God or gods. Freedom is the power — or right — to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. But what happens when the two collide? Can religion and freedom coexist? 

This question has been running through the minds of many as the expression of a marginalized group is being berated locally, across the state and nationwide. 

In 2022 the student organization LAMBDA put on a drag show located at the backdoor playhouse, this show caught the attention of a Tennessee politician, Robby Starbuck and his children’s advocate wife, Landon. 

His response to a performance sparked controversy on campus, among leadership, and in the greater Cookeville area.

The response seemingly condemned further events being thrown by LAMBDA. However when asked, the organization’s president stated they had not been reached out to about canceling upcoming events.

Despite the words of President Oldham, students and locals fought for the reaffirmation of Tech’s policy on freedom of speech and expression. 

A university spokesperson later clarified that performances are now again allowed on campus after a revisement of Tech’s performance policies — which said to not single out drag performances. 

No type of live performance art is singled out or treated differently in these policies, nor is any student organization. These policies will be applied consistently across campus to include any student organization-led event with a live performance element,” said a university spokesperson.

Following the controversy and disdain extended far beyond campus borders in recent weeks.

While not targeting Tech specifically, citizens gathered at Cookeville City Council meetin last month, demanding action should be taken to prohibit drag performances from happening in the city.

Just days later, a charity event held at Hix Farm Brewery hosted by Upper Cumberland Pride to raise money for the organization was berated by a group of protesters gathered outside of the venue on North Cedar Avenue, some bearing Nazi flags, and signs calling the event out for “grooming” children. Other groups, like Proud Boys and Patriot Front were also in attendance, while a small, quit and peaceful group were said to be there “praying,” and monitoring to make sure no children attended the 18-and-up event.

The Oracle staff published an editorial in it’s Feb. 7, 2023 edition, condemning the hate groups, which drew some criticism from anonymous people.

An email was sent stating, “It’s probably not a good idea to call people Nazis and facist. Especially while preaching that people should have an opinion but taking away the opinions of people who don’t agree with you (what fascists actually do).”

“Your article specifically said the newspaper is for spreading truth,” the email went on tosay. “So stop using it to spread your political views. Not all people who disagree do it because of hate but becasue of religious views but the church got lumped on with it all because they stood up for the Bible.”

As these events take place close to home, these question continues arise from those concerned about recent disturbances in the community: Can religion and freedom mix? Are people of color, minorities, LGBTQIA+, and non-religious people safe?

Tristyn Fanning, a sophomore secondary education major, says she believes it depends on the people involved. 

“If you practice religion in a way that doesn’t hinder others’ ability to do what they believe is right, I don’t see the problem,” said Fanning. “However I will say I don’t feel safe on campus as certain religious groups have received more tolerance from the president than other non-religious affiliated groups.”

Rob Ownes, Tech’s Chief of Diversity Officer says the university is committed to ensuring that every student, regardless of beliefs or background, feels respected, safe, and valued on our campus. 

“We celebrate the diversity of perspectives and opinions represented among our students, faculty, and staff, and expect that those opinions will always be shared through a lens of understanding and kindness,” he said. “If any student is made to feel excluded or unsafe, we encourage them to immediately share that with Student Affairs so that the university can work with them towards a resolution.” 

Members of LAMBDA who were directly affect by the vitriol have their own opinion on the matter. 

Deep down, I believe there can be peace between people with different religious and political values. Peace can only happen if we start seeing people as people, instead of what beliefs they might hold. There will always be disagreements, but you can disagree with someone and give them the basic level of respect,” Peace Caelia Burchett, a sophomore psychology major, said.

The Oracle staff attempted to reach out to local religious groups in Cookeville and on campus, however, they have yet to respond to requests for comment regarding their perspective on recent events. 

Leadership from Chi Alpha retracted their statement after Oracle staff stated they could not let them review the article prior to publication.