His arrest outside a Chattanooga church went viral. Now he's suing the police for violating his freedom of speech.

Staff Photo by Wyatt Massey / Titus Hartford stands outside his apartment building in Chattanooga on March 28, 2022. Hartford was arrested outside Calvary Chapel Chattanooga in April 2021 for allegedly trespassing, a claim he denies.

This time, Titus Hartford had a camera.

The 34-year-old welder grew up in an evangelical church in Alabama and had attempted to spread his message before, handing out pamphlets or trying to get to the front of the sanctuary to teach. His other attempts carried a mixed record: He claims to have been tackled on his way to the pulpit and to have had the police called on him for trespassing.

During his yearslong efforts to confront Christians, especially pastors, about what he believes are contradictions or perversions of Christianity, Hartford said he could see behind the mask of American Christianity, and it is ugly.

"Whenever I have an interaction in my journey to try to troubleshoot this terrible spiritual funk that Americans are in - because it's terrible and it is a funk - I have interactions with the meanest, nastiest men," Hartford said. "I never get them on camera and nobody would ever believe me."

On April 18, 2021, Hartford secured his red Canon PowerShot SX600 HS digital camera to the top of his sign and stood outside Calvary Chapel Chattanooga.

The video of what happened that Sunday morning - the confrontation, the arrest and the lawsuit that followed - was posted to YouTube on March 18, gathering tens of thousands of views within hours. As of Friday, the video had more than 205,000 views. It raises questions about the First Amendment's freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression.

"It's just really unfortunate that they have to be so heavy-handed, you know. You would think that you would be able to talk things out, come to some sort of agreement that we disagree," Hartford said. "They've got appearances to keep up. And I guess, they feel like they're threatened by people who have observations that aren't sanctioned. Unauthorized observations are not tolerated."

On the sidewalk

Hartford positioned himself outside Calvary Chapel on the sidewalk off 35th Street on April 18, 2021. The sign he held read: "The apostle Paul taught the opposite of what Jesus taught," a reference to the centuries-old debate on whether Christians are saved by faith alone or by faith and works.

The video, taken from the perspective of the top of the sign, opens with Hartford telling a church traffic volunteer he was "trying to lead people to Jesus by correcting some of the oppositions to his teachings" as congregants drove into the parking lot.

Eventually, Darren Delaney, Calvary's leader for service oversight and pastoral care, and a Chattanooga Police Department sergeant, working security for the church, approached Hartford. Delaney tells Hartford, "It's great that you have your theological and doctrinal belief, but do you really think that this is the best place to try to get that message out?"

"I know you're smart enough to where I see that you're standing on private, um, public property, it's the sidewalk," Delaney said. "But, man, can we not maybe just agree today to not have this happen while I have our congregation, I'm a shepherd, right?"

Delaney did not respond to requests for comment from the Times Free Press. Calvary Chapel also did not respond to requests for comment.

In the video, Hartford told Delaney the church does not teach the true message of Jesus because the leaders run when they see wolves going into the building, a reference to the biblical warning about false prophets who are like wolves in sheep's clothing.

"I don't flee from anything, brother," Delaney replied. "I'm standing here in front of a person I feel might be a wolf."

Hartford said he was invoking his First Amendment right to free speech. Delaney appealed to the police officer standing nearby about whether Delaney can claim Hartford is a public nuisance.

Delaney asked Hartford to come inside with him to discuss the Bible. Hartford refused.

"Have you ever been in here before?" Delaney asked. "Yes, you have, haven't you? I know exactly who you are, brother. You don't think I remember who you are. So we've had this before. How did it turn out last time?

How it turned out last time

Hartford had previously gone to Calvary Chapel on Nov. 27, 2016. He was interested in the megachurch off Broad Street because it was popular, he said.

Hartford was handing out his pamphlets critiquing the teachings of the Apostle Paul in the church's coffee shop before a service when, according to Hartford's telling, a police officer came from behind him. Hartford was escorted out. He said he did not start yelling until the officer put his hands on him.

According to the arrest report, filed by Officer Randy Raulston, who was working for the church in plainclothes, Hartford was in the church "telling people that God doesn't exist and the Bible was a lie." Hartford began yelling when Delaney approached and said that "God was a false proffitt [sic]," according to the report.

Delaney assisted the officer in physically removing Hartford from the building, according to the report. At one point, the report said, Hartford pulled his feet in, forcing the personnel to carry him.

He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The disorderly conduct charge was dropped, and Hartford pleaded guilty to resisting arrest, for which he paid fines, and the judge told him to stay out of Calvary Chapel.

When Hartford stood on the sidewalk outside Calvary five years later, he did not care if his sign disturbed people.

"I didn't care if it offended them because they really grievously offended me the first time for something so simple as passing out a pamphlet," Hartford told the Times Free Press from his home in Chattanooga near Harrison.

Back on the sidewalk

"Nobody here is paying any attention to your sign, OK?" Delaney told Hartford on the sidewalk outside Calvary Chapel on April 18, 2021. Beside the two men, vehicles were still entering the church parking lot.

In the video, Delaney then begins to push away Hartford's camera and sign, telling him he does not have the right to film.

"Don't touch my stuff," Hartford said.

"Get off my property," Delaney replied before turning to the police officer to call another unit because there was a "public problem" between him and Hartford.

Delaney then stepped back and crossed his arms, looking at Hartford.

Around 11:15 a.m., Chattanooga Police Officer James Elliott responded to the scene and, according to the arrest report, Hartford was "still on the church parking lot antagonizing church members."

Hartford denied ever being off the sidewalk. He also denied yelling at church members, as described in the arrest report. Hartford told the Times Free Press he "hollered" one time to get attention from people walking into the church.

Elliott, in the YouTube video and in the arrest report, told Hartford he was trespassing and asked him to present his ID.

"He refused," Elliott wrote in the report. "He stated he was trying to have a theological discussion. I told him this church was very understanding, but if a police sergeant working part time had told him he had to leave and he refused and refused to ID himself to other law enforcement while still on seen [sic], that he was just going to be arrested for criminal trespass."

Hartford was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. The Chattanooga Police Department took possession of his sign and camera.

On March 29, the Times Free Press requested a copy of Elliott's body camera footage from the arrest. The footage has not been provided as the city of Chattanooga asked for a seven-day extension to fulfill the open records request.

The lawsuit

On Jan. 29, Hartford filed a complaint for violation of civil rights against the officer Elliott in the East Tennessee district of the U.S. District Court.

"They were trying to suppress an inconvenient observation I was making with a sign," Hartford wrote in his complaint.

He asked for more than $16,000 in damages for bail, missed work, unlawful search and seizure, deprivation of rights, unlawful arrest and slander.

Attorneys for the city of Chattanooga, in response to the complaint, wrote that when Elliott arrived on the scene, Hartford was "still on the sidewalk and/or church parking lot," but the defense would "establish that the plaintiff was observed in the church parking lot at times and it is denied that plaintiff was on the public sidewalk at all times."

The city's attorneys deny Elliott violated Hartford's constitutional rights or slandered him. The defense also argued Elliott was entitled to qualified immunity, the legal principle that protects individual government officials from civil suits unless it can be proven they violated a clearly established law.

A scheduling conference for the lawsuit is set for April 21. Hartford is scheduled to appear in court for his 2021 arrest in May.

Emily O'Donnell, attorney for the city, said it is department policy to not comment on pending cases. Similarly, because of the ongoing litigation, the Chattanooga Police Department cannot comment on the situation or the video.

Local law enforcement has long ties to Calvary Chapel, with many officers being members and the department holding graduation ceremonies at the megachurch. Officers regularly provide contracted security for the church during services. In 2019, the department named Delaney "Chaplain of the Year."

After Hartford's video surfaced last month, people flooded the department's "Chaplain of the Year" Facebook post with comments degrading Delaney as a "fake Christian" or a "corrupted pastor fake."

The megachurch on Broad Street is a polarizing institution, gathering fierce praise and pushback for its stance against Planned Parenthood in the city, for example. The church has hosted commentators like Christian author Eric Metaxas, conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, conservative activist and talk show host Charlie Kirk and anti-abortion activist Seth Gruber for talks and in February hosted a forum with the three Republican county mayor candidates. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the church held a multiweek Christian civics course to discuss political ideas through a Biblical lens, such as the church's influence on culture, freedom, Marxism and critical race theory.

'Happily ever after'

Hartford believes Christianity is destabilizing America, causing people to misuse resources. People with ways to stop it have an imperative to speak up, he said.

"We are not going to survive on the world stage if we don't get a handle on the stuff that's going on in our country, and Christianity is bleeding us dry. Christianity is bleeding America dry."

He stopped identifying as a Christian about seven months ago. He still believes in God, he said, but not the one described through Jesus in the Bible. He believes the Gospel is a fabrication.

He bases this belief on his inability to see miracles as described in the Bible, such as in the Book of John when Jesus said people would do works greater than his. People who are Christians and struggle with so-called demons cannot cast them out, Hartford said, another point against the authenticity of the Bible's God.

The way God interacts with humans is different from what is in the Bible, Hartford said. God wants humans to evolve, and Christianity is a barrier to that evolution, he said.

When he was a Christian he was so spiritually focused he was not any earthly good, he said. Now, in sharing his message, God is blessing him, he said.

The ventures into churches were attempts to meet people where they were, he said. He is not as interested in doing it anymore.

"I felt like, growing up, there was something fishy going on," Hartford said. "And if I could just corner somebody and make them admit that the fishy thing is that I'm not crazy and that there is something fishy, that it would be rather satisfying. It is, it is rather satisfying. But it's not perpetually satisfying. It's like once you've seen it, that's what it is. And I can just go on with my life. Live happily ever after."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.