Akron Beacon Journal
May 11, 2000
BY WILLIAM CANTERBURY, Beacon Journal staff writer
CLEVELAND – Chanting religious and civil rights songs of solidarity, demonstrators joined hands and formed phalanxes to block an exit ramp at the Cleveland Convention Center. As each group of up to 15 protesters was arrested peacefully, new demonstrators took their place.
The defiance, which resulted in 190 arrests yesterday morning for disorderly conduct, capped a march by up to 400 men and women around the Convention Center. It was a show of unity to try to influence delegates to the United Methodist Church General Conference to change church policy on issues involving homosexuality.
"I’m out here to try to change the hearts and minds of the Methodists,” said demonstrator Chris Merritt just before police took away his group. Merritt, a Presbyterian and 48-year-old self-employed computer contractor from suburban Atlanta, said he is gay.
Holding his hand in the line was Marylee Fithian, a retired United Methodist minister from Minneapolis, who said she is a heterosexual who opposes discrimination by the church. "Some of my friends cannot minister because of sexual orientation and I find that to be a sin,” Fithian said. She called herself a reconciling person, "who accepts all people regardless of race and sexual orientation, so I’m here for my people.”
As demonstrators blocked the ramp, police officers announced that they were breaking the law by blocking an access to the building and that they were being arrested for failing to disperse. After about five minutes, each group walked peacefully away with an officer to go to court, while their supporters clapped and continued chanting songs.
Raucous jeers and obscenities rained down on them from anti-gay protesters positioned on a wall overlooking the ramp and sidewalk. These taunts were mainly coming from a group accompanying the Rev. Fred Phelps from Topeka, Kan. Phelps also held up signs against homosexuals at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was murdered in Wyoming.
About an hour after the march began, all of the arrests for the collective act of civil disobedience had taken place, police said. In Cleveland Municipal Court, the initial charges of aggravated disorderly conduct – a fourth-degree misdemeanor carrying possible penalties of up to $250 in fines and 30 days in jail – were reduced to minor misdemeanors of disorderly conduct. All of those arrested were pleading guilty or no contest and being fined $100, the maximum on that offense, a court official said.
Although seven United Methodist bishops had joined in the march, only one, C. Joseph Sprague from Chicago, was arrested for blocking the exit, police said.
The demonstration was coordinated by Soulforce, a coalition of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and heterosexuals dedicated to seeking equality for sexual minorities. "The Bible was used to keep African-Americans out of white churches 50 years ago, by the same people and in the same way they’re keeping gays out of the United Methodist Church," said the Rev. Mel White, the founder of Soulforce, who was among those arrested yesterday. "We’ve wept and we’ve grieved, and we’ve complained, and this signals the beginning of a whole new truth and love attack against the Methodist Church."
He said the group hoped its symbolic acts would help "reclaim the Methodist Church in all its grandeur, in all its history and glory. We’re going to keep them from coming out – our saying for the day is, ‘No exit without justice,’ and stay in there till you get it right." He vowed that if nothing changes to liberalize the policy against homosexuals, the group would return in four years when the next General Conference of the church is held.
"If they don’t drop these (anti-gay) policies, this is just a cakewalk," White said. "And we will be back and picket their churches between now and then and ask people to withdraw their tithes, and give them to someplace that deserves them."