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The Philly Five

Culture | Prosecutors say Christian activists put forth felony

Issue: "Bush: Hail to the chief," Jan. 29, 2005

National media stories are brewing on a Philadelphia legal case that pits city prosecutors against five members of Repent America (RA), a Christian activist group. Defense attorneys on Jan. 21 planned to file "not guilty" pleas on behalf of RA leader Michael Marcavage and three others who last fall were arrested and charged with eight offenses, including three felonies, after demonstrating at a gay pride event. The fifth defendant, Lauren Murch, 17, is being charged separately in the juvenile justice system.

Here's the background: On Oct. 10, 11 members of RA, which specializes in provocative demonstrations, rolled up to "OutFest," a gay pride event that sprawled across eight city blocks. Carrying signs that quoted Scripture, the group planned to sing and preach from the Bible using a bullhorn while moving through streets packed with celebrating homosexuals. A police captain patrolling the event told RA members they could walk wherever they wanted within the event, since it was being held on public property.

Almost immediately, homosexuals calling themselves the Pink Angels and carrying tall, pink signs made of Styrofoam formed a circle around the Repent America group, blocking their movement. A plainclothes police officer then came to walk alongside Mr. Marcavage's group, while the Pink Angels continued to surround RA in a "moving circle." When the officer instructed RA where to go next, RA complied. But when police tried to move RA to an area at the edge of the main event, Mr. Marcavage refused. Police arrested the group, and the charges followed.

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Last month a judge dismissed charges against six defendants but not against the other five, who prosecutors say did not merit First Amendment protection because they had offered "fighting words," a legal term for expression likely to provoke a riot. A reportedly representative video of the event shows only Mr. Marcavage singing "Blessed Be the Name of the Lord" over the bullhorn, while other group members silently carried signs. Four signs quoted Bible verses: "Ye must be born again," "Prepare to meet thy God," "Jesus Christ died to save sinners," and "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination." A fifth sign said "Homosexuality is sin; Christ can set you free." The Philadelphia Inquirer reported incorrectly that RA carried a sign that said "God Abhors You."

Both sides agree that city officials would have allowed RA to demonstrate and use its bullhorn to preach its message at the outskirts of the gay pride demonstration. Police said they would have cordoned off the OutFest venue to prevent protesters from entering, but organizers failed to obtain an injunction from a judge.

Philadelphia authorities have a mixed record on dealing with public activism. For example, some demonstrators arrested when the city hosted the 2000 Republican National Convention were charged with conspiracy, disorderly conduct, and possession of instruments of crime, some of the charges RA now faces. But no arrests occurred at OutFest 2003, where 11 demonstrators marched for more than two hours carrying signs that said "God Abhors You" and "AIDS: Judgment or Cure?" According to the Philly Pride website, those protesters called gay celebrants "fags" and told them they were "going to hell."

Mr. Marcavage has a four-year history of arrests for demonstration-related charges such as disorderly conduct and obstructing a public walkway. In all cases, judges have dismissed charges or he has been acquitted. He is currently awaiting hearings in two similar cases.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, the city's main newspaper, scolded Repent America for invading the gay festival with bullhorns and signs. But in an editorial it also decried the "over-the-top" felony charges against RA members. The article called District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham's prosecution for criminal conspiracy, hate crimes, and incitement to riot "absurd."

The hate crimes charge, "ethnic intimidation," stems from a 2002 Pennsylvania law that added "sexual orientation" and "sexual identity" to a list of protected classes including race and religion.

Mike Shaw, an independent documentary filmmaker who videotaped the OutFest incident, says he saw nothing that justified felony charges, but he said the group's tactics "might be hurting [RA itself], based on the trouble they seem to be getting into." The effect on other Christian activities and forms of evangelism will also be watched.

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