Christian Schools Acknowledge the Reality of Sexual Minority Students
SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: April 5, 2007
For Immediate Release
Contact: Brandon Kneefel, West Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6138, firstname.lastname@example.org
Brandy Daniels, East Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6284, email@example.com
(Fresno, California) — This week, after almost 4 weeks on the road, 26 young proponents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality visited a small Mennonite Brethren-affiliated college in Fresno, California. While conventional wisdom might predict culture clash, the 2007 Soulforce Equality Riders make it a practice to deny conventional expectations about religion, sexuality, and youth.
"We’re on this journey to begin conversations about what it means to be Christian, what it means to be gay or transgender," says Haven Herrin, Co-director of the 8-week Equality Ride, which will bring a total of 50 young equality advocates on 2 buses to 32 Christian colleges with policies that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.
This is the second year of the Equality Ride, which made a debut visit to 18 schools in 2006.
"What’s different this year is that, with all of the national media attention on gay evangelicals and ex-gay therapies, these schools can’t say ‘it doesn’t happen here,’" says Herrin. "It’s harder for them to look away from the suffering created by these policies."
At Fresno Pacific University, administrators collaborated with the Equality Riders on the westbound bus to create a setting for meaningful dialogue. On April 3rd, Equality Riders participated in classroom discussions and gave presentations on topics such as "Progressive Theology" and "In God’s Image: Identity and Scripture." Over meals, Equality Riders talked with concerned faculty who wanted to learn what they could do to make Fresno Pacific a safer learning environment for LGBT students.
The Fresno Pacific student handbook states that "the university is opposed to homosexual, premarital and extramarital sexual relations." But while FPU Director of Communications Diana Bates Mock affirmed that the institution’s views had not changed, she acknowledged that "there is a better appreciation for listening to each other."
Previously, at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where an LGBT student group has already been working towards official recognition, Equality Riders found similar opportunities for genuine dialogue. Although the Pepperdine student handbook identifies "homosexual conduct" as grounds for discipline, Equality Riders were invited to lead the prayer at a prayer service in which Riders, students, and faculty joined hands.
The image of hands joined across differences is a stark contrast to the Riders’ experience at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, a school that was also on the 2006 Equality Ride itinerary.
Before the westbound bus arrived in Utah, Equality Riders received a letter from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) asking that they "not enter church property for any purpose." Several westbound Equality Riders were raised in the LDS faith, including Kourt Osborn and Matt Kulisch, a former BYU student.
Ultimately, Osborn and his mother, Karel Allen, were arrested on March 22, when they stepped onto campus to deliver more than 50 pages documenting the isolation, intimidation, and suffering caused by the University’s honor code, which states that "no one known to be guilty of overt and active homosexual conduct is to be enrolled or permitted to remain at Church Educational System (CES) campuses as students…"
"We weren’t even allowed to touch the grass," says Osborn. "It was such a surreal experience."
In spite of BYU’s refusal to participate in an open dialogue about its policy, BYU students took advantage of several off-campus opportunities to meet with Equality Riders and talk about the climate for LGBT students at BYU. On March 21, nearby Utah Valley State College hosted a day of presentations about faith and sexuality, and the Provo Public Library hosted a panel of current and former BYU students. Later, more than 50 BYU students crowded into an informal meeting at a private home to meet with Equality Riders.
"That night, I learned a great deal not only about LDS Doctrine, but also about the possibilities of dissent within the church," says Equality Rider Emily Van Kley.
"I learned that, regardless of BYU’s policies, there is a great hunger among students to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities, and that these conversations can be had with deep respect for all the people involved."
Future Stops on the West Route
The westbound Equality Riders will continue to challenge the BYU honor code when they travel to BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho on April 16-17. In the meantime, they will make stops at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington, Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, and Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. Each of these four schools is collaborating with the Equality Ride to create opportunities for education and exchange of ideas.
At BYU Idaho, the Riders will again face the LDS church-issued mandate to stay off of all church property. But, in spite of the official stance, students from BYU-Idaho have already begun contacting Equality Riders to describe the suffering of LGBT students and allies on campus. The stop at BYU-Idaho will likely feature an attempt to deliver these statements, some of which must remain anonymous for fear of disciplinary consequences for students who identify themselves as lesbian or gay.
East Bus Faces Challenges to First Amendment Rights
As they travel through the South, Equality Riders on the eastbound bus have faced efforts by local law enforcement officials to abridge their First Amendment Rights. On Tuesday, March 20, ACLU-Mississippi intervened on the Equality Riders’ behalf when police in Clinton, Mississippi informed the Riders that members of their group would be cited if they "attempt[ed] to gather or travel in a group of four or more" near the campus of Mississippi College.
On March 22, Riders on the eastbound bus were harassed by Clinton police exhorting them to "go on and get out of town" after a day of vigils and civil disobedience. The bus driver was threatened with arrest if the bus did not leave the city of Clinton immediately. Jarrett Lucas and Katie Higgins, Co-directors of the eastbound bus, penned a letter to the Mississippi Attorney General, which can be accessed at www.soulforce.org/article/1214.
When Equality Riders arrived in Williamsburg, Kentucky, home of the University of the Cumberlands, police from throughout Whitley County surrounded the bus and informed the Riders that any attempt to enter onto campus would result in arrest. The riders exited the bus and lined up along the street in order to stand vigil, but were promptly told by police that they were not allowed to stand along the public sidewalk.
The Equality Riders began to walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the campus, singing songs from the civil rights movement. After 15 minutes, the young adults broke up to speak with students waiting on the periphery of campus. At various times, police from different departments warned that no individual could stand stationary on the public sidewalk or that only groups of 3 or more would be arrested for standing stationary. It soon became clear that no individual could stand still along the sidewalk, even to converse with students.
One Equality Rider, Jake Reitan, was arrested for standing still along the sidewalk. Upon witnessing Reitan’s arrest, two students from the University of the Cumberlands decided to stand on the sidewalk. After about 15 minutes the students were arrested and charged with failure to disperse.
Yesterday, April 4, the Equality Riders arrived at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina — an institution notorious for its long-standing prohibition on interracial dating, which was repealed in 2000. Upon arrival at Bob Jones, Equality Riders were met with groups protesting their visit and message of inclusion for God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children. Operation Save America, Truth Ministry, and Americans for Truth were among the anti-gay groups present. Through bullhorns and signs that proclaimed "Sodomy is Sin" and "Three Gay Rights. 1. AIDS. 2. Hell. 3. Salvation," they loudly and forcefully spoke against the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
Three Riders were arrested as they attempted to walk on to campus to deliver artwork and a call for change to the campus. They were cited for trespassing and then released.
Future Stops on the East Route
Next week, the East bus will make stops at Montreat College in Montreat, North Carolina, Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, and Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
On April 23 and 24, the eastbound bus will make an extended visit to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they will visit Calvin College, a school which has collaborated with the Equality Riders to create intellectually rigorous opportunities to discuss faith and sexuality — even going so far as to integrate the Riders into the school’s ongoing series on sexuality. Ironically, just three miles away, at Cornerstone University, the Equality Riders will not be welcome, although the campus plans a week of programming and a special 12-hour overnight worship service to respond to the Equality Ride visit.
The Equality Ride will conclude on April 26 with a joint visit by both buses to Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. For a complete itinerary of stops, go to www.soulforce.org/equalityride
Soulforce Q is the young adult division of Soulforce, a social justice organization that works to end political and religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For more information go to www.soulforce.org or www.equalityride.com.