Echoes of the Past as Mississippi Town Attempts to Restrict Constitutional Rights; ACLU Intervenes
Mormons Bar Equality Riders on All Church Property
SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: March 21, 2007
For Immediate Release
Contact: Brandon Kneefel, West Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6138, email@example.com
Kyle DeVries, East Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6284, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Provo, UT and Clinton, MI) — Two weeks ago, 50 young men and women boarded two buses and set out on a remarkable journey. Their mission: to initiate conversations about faith and sexuality at 32 Christian colleges with policies that silence or exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. This week, the Riders face their toughest challenges yet as the westbound bus travels to Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah and the eastbound bus travels to Mississippi College in Mississippi.
Thus far, the Riders have shared moments of reconciliation, prayer, and connection with conservative Christian students at colleges on two separate routes across the nation, but they have also faced harassment and intimidation. Their bus was defaced with anti-gay slurs in Sioux Center, Iowa and they were met by armed police on the rooftops at Central Bible College in Missouri.
Currently, 5 Equality Riders and 1 Baylor University student are being held in the McClennan County Jail in Waco, Texas. The Riders were arrested Tuesday on criminal trespassing charges after they wrote messages affirming LGBT students in chalk on Baylor sidewalks. The Riders’ bail has been set at $2,000 each, which is equivalent to the maximum fine under Texas law.
Riders are also facing organized, official resistance as they prepare to visit BYU, where Mormon Riders have been banned from their own church, and Clinton, Miss., where police officials attempted to abridge the Riders’ constitutional rights.
Clinton, Mississippi: Echoes of Past Civil Rights Struggles
Police Officials Attempt to Deny the Right to Assemble
On Tuesday, police officials in Clinton, Miss., informed the eastbound Equality Riders that members of their group would be cited if they "attempt to gather or travel in a group of four or more" near the campus of Mississippi College.
In an addendum to an assembly permit, Lt. Thomas R. Ruffin acknowledged that the department’s actions "could be construed as conflicting with constitutional allowances," but suggested that the young people’s presence in the city presented "valid public safety concerns."
Equality Riders immediately contacted the ACLU of Mississippi, who intervened on the group’s behalf. In a letter to Ruffin, ACLU-Mississippi Staff Attorney John Williams cited Supreme Court precedents establishing prior restraints on the right to assemble as "the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment Rights."
Williams continued, "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. From a legal standpoint your licensing requirement is wrought with constitutional violations and restrictions on First Amendment grounds."
Clinton police officials immediately withdrew the unconstitutional restrictions.
Mississippi College Administrator Likens Equality Ride Visit to 9/11
Officials at Mississippi College, the second oldest Baptist college in the nation, have made it clear that the Equality Riders’ loving perspective on LGBT students is not welcome on campus.
In negotiations prior to the visit, one administrator likened the Riders to terrorists, vowing that the campus would deal with the Equality Riders "just like America dealt with 9/11."
In reality, the Soulforce Equality Ride is rooted in a philosophy of non-violent social change as reflected in the teachings of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Thursday, March 22, the Riders plan a peaceful vigil on a public sidewalk adjacent to the campus at 10 am. During the vigil, Equality Riders will make themselves available to students who are interested in speaking with them. The vigil will take place on College Street, between Capitol and Jefferson.
"While fear plays a strong role on this campus and in this town, the truth of our message is stronger: God loves all of His children, regardless of their sexual orientation," says Stephen Krebs, one of the organizers of the Equality Ride visit to Mississippi College.
Brigham Young University: Mormon Equality Riders Barred From all Church Property
Last week, Soulforce Equality Riders on the westbound bus received a letter from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints asking that Equality Riders "not enter church property for any purpose." The Riders had planned to volunteer at the church-affiliated Welfare Square Cannery and to visit Temple Square to learn more about the LDS faith in preparation for a stop at Brigham Young University on Thursday, March 22.
The BYU Student Honor Code 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." It also identifies "advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle (whether implied or explicit) or any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature," as violations of the Honor Code.
The Equality Riders’ goal at is to expose the suffering that this policy creates and to provide resources for hope and reconciliation.
"Many LGBT students in our community suffer in silence," says Kourt Osborn, one of the organizers of the BYU stop. "They feel lonely, without friends or avenues for support. They feel threatened by BYU or by their own feelings inside, without affirming and correct information to give them a sense of identity."
Tomorrow, Equality Riders and Provo community members will begin a six-hour "Walls of Jericho" walk around the outskirts campus in order to draw attention to the issues that LGBT students face at BYU.
During the march, Riders will hold a press conference for community members, students, and former students to present grievances, letters, and concerns to the BYU community. This List of Concerns represents contributions directly from the BYU community to the school administration. The press conference will be held at the corner of Bulldog and North Canyon at 11 a.m.
Immediately after the press conference, Riders, community members, and BYU students will attempt to deliver the List of Concerns to Vice President Jan Scharman. The Equality Riders have already received an official notice of trespassing and proclamation of arrest if they enter Church or University property.
Looking Back: Moments of Reconciliation and Witness
In spite of the resistance that the Ride has encountered, the Riders have also participated in moments of genuine dialogue and reconciliation. At Wisconsin Lutheran, Riders were not allowed on campus, but the did manage an off-campus meeting with administrators and select students.
"Many of the students bowed their heads, cried, and shifted uncomfortably as the school officials repeatedly condemned us. One brave young woman stepped forward and joined our closing prayer, despite the school officials’ outright refusal to do so," said Alexey Bulokhov, Co-director of the Ride.
At Oklahoma Baptist University, the Equality Riders walked on to campus with a banner filled with Bible verses and affirmations of LGBT students. When the Riders were arrested, 2 OBU students, who asked to remain anonymous, picked up the banner and brought it the rest of the way to the Student Center.
"We just wanted to finish what they started," said one of the participating students. "People should know that what they’re doing isn’t wrong, that our lives aren’t wrong."
The Soulforce Equality Riders will continue their journey through April 26. A complete list of stops is available online at the links below.
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.