Saturday, April 30, 2005

DANVILLE, Va. — Averett University yesterday conducted its first commencement since it was cast from a Baptist association for accepting a homosexual student organization on campus, despite a small protest.

“We’re going to be an independent flagship Christian university,” Averett President Richard Pfau said. “We’re going to be a community of tolerance.”

The six protesters, including two children, came from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

About 70 people participated in a peaceful counterdemonstration.

Averett’s acceptance of a Gay-Straight Student Alliance and a Gay Pride Week led the Baptist General Association of Virginia to announce April 6 that it was ending its 145-year relationship with the university, which has about 1,000 students.

Gay Pride Week — which featured films, speakers, discussions and a drag ball — was held in February on the campus of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, more than 200 miles from the Averett campus.

Representatives of Averett and the Baptist association met March 18 to discuss a possible resolution, but talks failed. The association later announced it would continue to support the university’s Baptist Student Union.

Mr. Pfau said Averett has returned all funding to the Baptist association and is operating in the black. He also said the university intends to expand fundraising and development beyond Virginia and is considering aligning with another Baptist organization.

“We have had a sense of where we’re going for at least the past decade,” Mr. Pfau said.

The protesters lined a street leading to the Averett campus. The two children, ages 7 and 12, held signs, one of which read “God hates fags.”

“The homosexuals are taking over,” said Rebekka Phelps-Davis, a church member and daughter of the Rev. Fred Phelps, pastor of the church. He did not attend the protest.

“It’s not going to be long before the Lord destroys this country,” she said.

Across the street, Andrew Abbott was wrapped in a rainbow flag to ward off a drizzle.

“We cannot let these people come in here and ruin something good with a bunch of hate,” said Mr. Abbott, an 18-year-old student at Danville Community College.

Christopher Clarke, president of the university’s Student Government Association, said the school’s split from the Baptist General Association is not necessarily a negative.

“I think it’s going to help in terms of marketing Averett,” Mr. Clarke said. “I think we won’t be seen as just a Baptist university, but as a university where anyone can come.”

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