- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

A Philadelphia judge yesterday dismissed all charges against four men of a Christian evangelical group who were accused of trying to disrupt a homosexual rights event in the fall.

“Court of Common Pleas Judge Pamela Dembe quickly and summarily dismissed the charges on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to make even a minimal showing of any criminal conduct,” said Brian Fahling, a senior trial attorney for the American Family Association (AFA), which represented the defendants.

In an interview after the hearing, Mr. Fahling said Judge Dembe held that “First Amendment rights are fundamental” in a democracy and that the “preaching and singing” by the four men at the rally, OutFest, were “classic First Amendment activities.”

The men ” Michael Marcavage, Dennis Green, James Cruse and Mark Diener ” belong to a religious group called Repent America. Each had been charged with felonies, including inciting to riot, ethnic intimidation and criminal conspiracy, in connection with the Oct. 10 protest.

OutFest is a celebration of National Coming Out Day, which encourages homosexuals to proclaim their sexual orientation publicly. The city of Philadelphia provides financial support for the event.

Chuck Volz, who has been organizing OutFest for 10 years, said the event was not “anti-Christian.”

“I’m very conservative, very pro-life and very Catholic,” said Mr. Volz, who is openly homosexual.

He also said he accepts the court’s decision.

“I know Judge Dembe, and if she thinks the First Amendment is at play here, we can live with it.”

Prosecutors in the case, however, took exception to the ruling.

Charles Ehrlich, a Philadelphia assistant district attorney, said they “disagree” with Judge Dembe’s decision that the protesters engaged in legally protected speech.

“The First Amendment does not say you can protest any place, any time,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich said the men had the right to protest at OutFest, but they did not have the right to ignore orders from police and vendors to move to other locations at the event where they would be less obstructive.

Mr. Fahling said his clients weren’t obstructive and that his case was bolstered by a videotape of OutFest produced by an independent film company showing “peaceful” protesters.

In all, 11 Repent America protesters were arrested at the event.

One of them ” a teenage girl ” was held over for trial. She faces a hearing today in juvenile court. Mr. Fahling said he expects the charges against her also to be dropped.

From the beginning, attorneys for AFA said the charges against the defendants were improper and constituted a “profound abuse of power” by law-enforcement personnel.

Even if all criminal charges are dismissed today, Mr. Fahling said this will only end the “first chapter in the Philadelphia 11 saga.” He noted that his clients also have filed a federal lawsuit against the city and its police officers.

“We are seeking damages for civil rights violations,” he said.

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