Monday, January 10, 2005

Four Christian activists face arraignment tomorrow in Philadelphia on felony charges in what they describe as their “peaceful protest” of a homosexual rights event last fall.

The defendants, all members of an evangelical Christian group called Repent America, “exercised their First Amendment rights by preaching the Gospel, and they did it peacefully,” said Brian Fahling, an attorney for the American Family Association, who is representing them.

Each has been charged with three felonies — criminal conspiracy, inciting to riot and ethnic intimidation — charges that Mr. Fahling called “the most profound abuse of power I’ve ever seen.”

The ethnic intimidation charge was filed under Pennsylvania’s hate-crimes law. A spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office said sexual orientation is one of the protected categories covered by the ethnic intimidation statute.

The defendants, known to their supporters as the “Philadelphia Four,” have become a cause celebre for Christian conservatives and commentators.

Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of the Concerned Women for America, said it was “frightening to see religious persecution on American soil, especially in the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence.”

“Even if Repent America infringed on the law, they don’t deserve three felony counts totaling 47 years in jail.”

Led by 25-year-old Michael Marcavage of the suburb of Lansdowne, Pa., the four were among 11 protesters initially arrested Oct. 10 during an annual homosexual block party in Philadelphia known as OutFest.

Mr. Fahling said the city of Philadelphia contributed about $22,000 to fund last year’s OutFest, a celebration of National Coming Out Day, which encourages homosexuals to publicly proclaim their orientation.

A Philadelphia Police Department arrest report said the protesters were “carrying extremely large signs and using bullhorns to try to disrupt the event.” The reports also said the protesters “began preaching anti-gay/lesbian messages” and that the area in which they protested was directly in front of tables where vendors were trying to sell merchandise.

The protesters at three times ignored police commands to move, according to the report, before moving toward the event’s main stage — opposite to the direction of the commands.

“They continued using the bullhorns to shout their anti-gay/lesbian message to the crowd which surrounded the protesters,” the report said. By this time, the crowd was in excess of 500 people, according to police.

The report went on to say the crowd “had to be restrained by uniformed and plainclothes police to ensure the safety of the protesters.” Told he would be arrested, Mr. Marcavage lay down in the street.

In an interview last week on Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor,” Chuck Volz, a legal adviser to the OutFest event, said the protesters, with their signs and bullhorns, were telling attendees: “‘You’re a sinner. You’re going to hell. You’re an abomination’ — that sort of stuff.”

District Attorney Lynne Abraham “believes everyone’s rights must be protected,” said spokeswoman Cathie Abookire, but another official in the District Attorney’s Office, who asked not to be named, said, “The protesters don’t have unlimited rights to protest wherever they want.”

In addition to the felony charges, the four Repent America members who will be arraigned today are charged with several misdemeanors, including failing to disperse, disorderly conduct, obstructing the highway, recklessly endangering another person and possessing an instrument of crime — presumably the bullhorn.

On Fox, Mr. Volz said he had formed a group, the Pink Angels, which confronted the Philadelphia protesters “with our own signage and whistles to drown out their bullhorns.”

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