On an Indian summer afternoon in front of the Justice Department yesterday, a group of dark-suited ministers gathered to protest recently-passed hate crimes legislation, saying it had had a “chilling effect” on religious freedom.
“We will not be bullied!” cried Reverend Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, to a rank of cameras. “We will not be pressured! We will not go silently into the night!”
A black-clad traveling minister from Colorado Springs, Chaplain Klingenschmitt, upped the ante with a press release containing some choice anti-gay Bible verses and a challenge to arrest him for saying that homosexuals are “worthy of death.” “That does not mean that I am going to take action, or that I believe anyone should take action in that way,” he explained, calling the Matthew Shepard Act a “thought-crimes bill.” “My intention is the free exercise of religion. What other peoples’ intention is is up to them.”
Try as they might to pull a Cindy Sheehan, however, no federal sledgehammer descended. The police watched quietly from the perimeter as ministers decried homosexuality as an “abomination,” intervening only to clear gay rights activists off a concrete rise behind the podium (officers confirmed that there was not, in fact, anything the clergymen could have said to get themselves arrested—the act contains explicit protections for religious speech). Still, the ministers pressed on, undaunted by law enforcement’s refusal to persecute them. They hold tight to the belief that the anti-Christian crackdown is coming, because it’s happened before. Michael Marcavage, a young, green-eyed minister hugging a leatherbound Bible to his chest, has lived it.
“It was a public celebration of sin,” he started, referring to Philadelphia’s OutFest in 2004, which he and ten others protested with bullhorns and signs. “That’s exactly what was taking place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in what they call the ‘gayborhood.’
“Yeeaah,” said a gay rights activist appreciatively.
“We ultimately were met by a militant group of homosexuals,” Marcavage continued. “And these homosexuals had locked arms. And as they locked arms, they prevented us from walking freely down the public sidewalk.” Then, he brought up a fellow crusader—a bowed, graying grandmother named Linda Beckman—to finish the story of how the “Philadelphia Eleven” were arrested, how cold the cell had been, how hard the concrete bench. They were charged with three felonies and five misdemeanors, all of which were dismissed. “We have to stand,” she said in a high, clear voice. “Christians, we have to stand.”
The ministers were there to defend the rights of those who would preach hate, and go to jail if necessary. At some point, they granted in a media Q&A, they might even seek a test case to challenge hate crimes legislation in court. But this, apparently, was not the time. What was billed as a challenge became something more benign: the ministers spent more time trying to convince the gathered gay rights activsts that anything they might say was only out of love—and, well, no one was ever going to arrest them for that.
“As pastors, we do not want people to self-destruct,” preached Pastor Jim Garlow of San Diego, a leader of the Proposition 8 campaign in California. “We care deeply about people, so consequently, we try to urge people not to make lifestyle choices that will ultimately bring them harm. Had people listened to our plea, there would be tens of thousands of people who would not have died of a dreaded disease.”
The air of conciliation was catching. All around the sidewalk, as the clergymen took turns at the podium, side discussions broke out between bright-eyed young gay rights protesters and the men who still held out hope for their salvation. Not, of course, that anyone was changing anyone else’s minds.
“They’re pretty set in their belief systems,” said Pastor Paul Blair of Reclaim Oklahoma for Christ, a towering former NFL player, of his discussion with a bisexual man and a girl holding a rainbow flag. “We had a pleasant conversation with them, but, different worldview.”
The press conference ended with prayer, during which the ministers joined hands and bowed their heads—but the case still had to be made. “Lord, we pray for the homosexual community today,” began Pierre Bynum of the Family Research Council, his eyes closed. “We pray that there will be fewer hate crimes. Lord, according to statistics, there are very very few, anyway there are more homosexual against homosexual crimes than there are crimes by heterosexuals against homosexuals.”
Following the prayer, the band of students had a few minutes of their own at the podium, rebutting the arguments of the last hour and a half by the grace of the podium’s owner (he had donated his profits to a local gay rights organization when he learned the nature of the group that had rented his equipment). The opponents parted amicably.
“What’s your name?” Pastor Rick Scarborough of Vision America asked their speaker, 22-year-old David Valk.
“David,” he replied.
“Well, God bless you David,” Scarborough said.
“God bless you!”