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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
March 30, 2007

Soulforce riders met with
open arms, but also with handcuffs

Louisville, Ky.--LGBT civil rights advocates sat down in protest of a Southern Baptist leader’s comments that changing a baby’s sexual orientation in its mother’s womb would be scripturally sound.

Protesters from the Soulforce Equality Ride diverted from their itinerary to hold a sit-in at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 26. The school’s president, Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., had written an article theorizing that science might someday be able to identify a gay fetus and use hormone therapy to change its sexual orientation.

A dozen Equality Riders were arrested during the sit-in.

“As far as I could tell they were not unruly,” Lawrence Smith, the seminary’s vice president of communications, told the Associated Press. “It’s my understanding that they did not resist arrest, but they refused to leave the campus when they were asked to leave.”

The Equality Ride was started last year with a busload of young LGBT Christians traveling to various Christian colleges and universities to start a dialogue on gay and lesbian issues.

This year, two buses headed out on March 8, one heading west and another going to points east. The eastern bus’ first stop was at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, where the vehicle was spray-painted with anti-gay graffiti. The western bus saw arrests at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, their first stop.

While a number of the stops on the Equality Ride seem filled with arrests and antagonism, Soulforce hails the rides as a way to spread their message of inclusion in religious life, and many of their visits are greeted by students eager for the dialogue to begin.

Soulforce uses the non-violent methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to strive for an end to what co-founder Rev. Mel White termed “spiritual violence” against LGBT people.

The western riders were barred from Mormon property both during and before their visit to Brigham Young University. Riders planned to volunteer and learn about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally known, prior to a scheduled stop on the campus in Utah on March 21 and 22. There is another stop planned at the Idaho campus of Brigham Young University on April 16 and 17.

Soulforce protesters walked around the outskirts of the Utah BYU campus on March 22, in what they termed a “Walls of Jericho” walk.

The east route met heavy resistance in Clinton, Mississippi, where police officials laid down strict rules restricting the movements of the Equality Riders.

Lt. Thomas R. Ruffin wrote in an addendum to an assembly permit that the police department’s rules could “be construed as conflicting with constitutional allowances,” and called the protester’s presence “valid public safety concerns.”

The police threatened to cite the protesters if they “attempt to gather or travel in a group of four or more” near Mississippi College.

The American Civil Liberties Union was enlisted to aid the demonstrators, and after a strongly-worded letter, the police dropped their stipulations.

“It is unconstitutional and unlawful for your office to deny citizens the right to peacefully assemble on public property without the above-mentioned safeguards and restraints,” wrote staff attorney John Williams of the ACLU of Mississippi. “From a legal standpoint your licensing requirement is wrought with constitutional violations and restrictions on First Amendment grounds.”

An administrator at Mississippi College compared the Equality Riders to the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks, and said that the campus would deal with the riders “just like America dealt with 9/11.”

Some of the Equality Riders were arrested when they stepped off the sidewalk and onto the lawn in front of the college’s administration building. They were given the option of three days’ community service, or five days in jail.

During the March 22 visit to Clinton, riders reported being verbally harassed by police, and the Clinton police SWAT team observed their actions throughout the day. The Soulforce bus was followed by a police officer who repeatedly told the driver to leave town, even when he was parked in a lot designated by city officials for the bus.

The eastern bus will make its only Ohio stop at Cedarville University on April 19 and 20, the first visit to Ohio since the Equality Ride began last year. The school is near Xenia, about ten miles east of Dayton.




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