The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

October 14, 2009

Evangelist's preaching sparks campus protest

By Denise Richardson

ONEONTA _ A Christian preached at the State University College at Oneonta to students who stood in a line for three hours Tuesday with their backs turned toward him.

SUNY Oneonta students organized a rally because they expected Jim Deferio, of Syracuse, to preach that Jesus Christ can save homosexuals.

But Tuesday, Deferio focused on an anti-abortion message as he quoted Scripture and held signs with graphic pictures.

Michelle Deferio, his 27-year-old daughter, joined him in talking about God, Jesus and Christ's mercy. The theme was different, she said, but the message about God's love was the same.

More than 60 students and others stood in the campus quadrangle in the 40-degree weather, and umbrellas opened during light rainfall. About 150 observers gathered in the first hour of the three-hour event.

Some protesters purposely wore headphones or earmuffs so that they wouldn't have to listen to Jim Deferio, said Crystal Hausler, a SUNY Oneonta senior and a member of Open Minded Unity, a gay-straight alliance on campus.

``We're just here to show not everybody believes what he says,'' said Hausler, of Poughquag, who is studying criminal justice. Any fundamentalist, any person, can take parts of the Bible and use them to a focused purpose, she said.

Karen Cutler, 28, a SUNY Oneonta junior, said students were ``pretty much offended'' by comments they considered racist, homophobic and sexist. Cutler, a dietetics major, said she stood in the rally line most of the three hours.

Jim Deferio told students that abortion doesn't ``solve any of society's problems,'' and that he doesn't support gay rights.

Student signs read: ``Love Is Love.'' ``Celebrate the Difference.'' ``Just Walk Away From Hate.'' ``God Created Rainbows.'' ``Freedom Is About Pro-choice.''

The first hour of Jim Deferio's visit Tuesday was unlike the evangelist's visit last year, when students shouted, chanted and stood close to the preacher. On Tuesday, a few hecklers stood in front of the preacher and his daughter and held signs, but the main line of students was silent and maintained a distance of more than 20 feet.

``It's a silent rally,'' said Hausler, a SUNY Oneonta senior. ``The more you yell at him, the more he yells back.''

Students and faculty passed through the quad between classes, and activities were observed by University Police officers standing near the quad.

Christine Luzzi, 18, of Lake George was among those who stopped to listen to Jim Deferio.

``I just think he's rude _ I don't think he should be forcing his beliefs on other people,'' Luzzi, a SUNY Oneonta freshman, said. ``He knows he's not wanted _ he's still here."

A heckler yelled at Jim Deferio that he was on public property. ``Separation of church and state,'' she said.

``Get a real job,'' yelled another.

The student lineup included some members of Campus Ambassadors, a Christian fellowship group, said Chris Deemer, campus minister. After Jim Deferio's appearance last year, he said, members talked about how Deferio ``doesn't represent us or our message.'' Deemer said he expects students again will be challenged about their faith.

Chelsea Quaranta, 18, a freshman from Ronkonkoma, said Jim Deferio wasn't preaching but was forcing his views on others.

``A true Christian, in my eyes, won't force his beliefs on others,'' she told Jim Deferio as she looked for a reading from Genesis to quote.

``I'm a Christian,'' she said later about how upsetting she found Jim Deferio's comments. ``He's flat out telling me my beliefs are wrong.''

Jim Deferio's application to speak at the SUNY Oneonta campus was approved as a matter of free speech, said Carol Blazina, college spokeswoman.

``We will defend his right to speak _ that's what democracy is all about,'' Blazina said.

As a public institution, SUNY Oneonta is obligated to allow the expression of ideas on campus, according to a statement issued by the college. Permitting someone to speak on campus doesn't imply endorsement of the content, the statement said, and the college has the right to restrict the time, place and duration of speech so that it does not impede campus operations.

Campus officials were present to see the Deferios leave promptly after their allotted time expired at about 2:30 p.m.

Everyone has a right to voice an opinion, said James Macaluso, 19, a junior from Long Island studying communications, as he watched the rally.

``I just wanted to see what it's all about,'' he said. ``It's fair. ... It's cool.''