The man is in his mid to late forties, bald, tall. His focus is a girl in her late teens, giggling with her friends, bags swinging in hands. The man shows no hesitation as he points at her and positively spits into a microphone, “Have you had an abortion? If you have, you are a murderer.”
This girl is a shopper. This man is a member of Streetchurch, a Christian preaching group who have been thrown into the spotlight for preaching illegally, and, on occasion, aggressively in Rundle Mall.
Rain or shine, Streetchurch members preach in the shopping district, using microphones and speakers to deliver their sermons on abortion, homosexuality and pre-martial sex – debates that remain uncomfortable in some private spheres, let alone bellowed into a shopping mall.
The aim of Streetchurch is ambiguous. They are neither preaching to the converted, nor enlisting new converts. Rather, their sermons scale a confusing line between saving and damning the passing “sinners”. Their flyers match the attitudes of their addresses- “God has a deep hatred”, “God must punish those who rebel against him, with eternal hell” and “Turn from sin or you will perish!”
It’s not their belief in God, but their anger, that frightens some people.
Whether the sermons are offensive or just an ignorable annoyance varies for the passerby. The orations are often greeted with finger gestures, the occasional fuck-you, and gaze avoiding. Even harder to watch is when a crowd of onlookers form, booing and jeering. The occasional drunken yob asks purposefully offensive questions in order to lure the preacher into loud arguments.
Then there is the matter for the businesses. Retailers have become increasingly irritated with the preachers, who take to standing outside their businesses, which in turn affects the moods of entering customers. An unhappy shopper is not a buying shopper.
One store employee said, “I went out and asked them to turn the sound down [on the amplifier] one day, and they were very rude. So much for religious love and understanding.”
According the Adelaide City Council guidelines, preachers must not use amplification devices, stay for periods of longer than two hours, appear without a permit, and most importantly, restrict their preaching to places that aren’t of public prominence- such as Rundle Mall. Streetchurch flout all of these rules, but continue to argue that their persecution stems from religious prejudice in the City Council and police.
Streetchurch’s main defense in court has been to argue that freedom of speech is their constitutional right. But, problematically for the group, there is nothing written in the Australian Constitution about freedom of speech. While a High Court judgement found it to be ‘inherent’ in the constitution, judgements since then have been unclear on whether Australians have the right to protected speech.
As of August 31st, Streetchurch are temporarily banned from the mall. The City Council submitted a report to the South Australian Supreme Court, citing complaints of alleged hate speech from retailers and shoppers.
Streetchurch turned down my request for an interview, but did allow me this statement:
“We are not racist and we do not hate anyone. Jesus died for sinners and sinners need to repent and turn to Jesus Christ. That’s our message and we share it out of love for sinful men. We will continue to warn sinners of Gods Judgement [sic] and show love to all of mankind.”
One wet Friday night just after the ban, Streetchurch are outside Hungry Jacks, now safely outside the Rundle Mall no-go zone. After boos and jeers from passersby, one man attempting to pull the speaker cable out, and two mall security guards arriving, they decide to call it a night. But they’ll be back next week. After all, it is their God-given right to do so.
Find out more at Streetchurch’s official website.