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Protester arrested at NYC COVID-19 field hospital run by anti-gay evangelist

William Talen, 69, was charged with resisting arrest, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct outside the Samaritan's Purse field hospital in Central Park.
William Talen, 69, is arrested by NYPD officers at the Samaritan's Purse field hospital in New York City's Central Park.
Police arrest William Talen, 69, at the Samaritan's Purse field hospital in New York City's Central Park on Sunday, April 5, 2020.Dianne Augelli

The guerrilla theater activist known as Reverend Billy, decked out in a pink suit and a bandanna mask, was arrested Sunday afternoon at a COVID-19 field hospital in New York City's Central Park that is being run by an evangelical group whose leader has a long history of anti-LGBTQ beliefs.

"They have no business being in New York City," William Talen, 69, shouted as six New York police officers, one of whom appeared to be carrying Talen's rainbow flag, removed him from the park. "They are the virus."

Talen, an actor and playwright, has satirized consumerism and right-wing religious beliefs in the character of Reverend Billy for more than 20 years.

The 68-bed field hospital is run by Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian organization run by Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham. Franklin Graham, as NBC News previously reported, has a long history of controversial beliefs and remarks, and his relief organization requires volunteers to adhere to a Statement of Faith, which says "marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female."

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Talen was charged with resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct, according to a police spokesperson, who said he is so far the only person to have been arrested at the field hospital.

In an email sent to NBC News, the spokesperson said Talen "jumped over the outer perimeter barrier of the Samaritan's Purse Field Hospital, a prohibited area," and was then "instructed to leave." He refused and "proceeded to plant a flag on a pole into the ground."

Talen, who tweeted video of his arrest, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and while Samaritan's Purse declined to comment on Sunday's incident, a spokesperson told NBC News on Monday that the organization's "focus remains on providing the highest level of care to all patients being treated at our Emergency Field Hospital in Central Park."

In a previous statement shared with NBC News, Graham said Samaritan's Purse "treats everyone we help the same."

"We do not make distinctions about an individual's religion, race, sexual orientation, or economic status," he stated. "We certainly do not discriminate, and we have a decades-long track record that confirms just that."

Samaritan's Purse is working with the Mount Sinai Health System, a New York hospital network, to address the overflow of patients due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a statement emailed Monday, a Mount Sinai spokesperson said all staff members within its hospital system, including the Samaritan's Purse field hospital, "will adhere" to Mount Sinai's "principles and guidelines when it comes to not discriminating against patients or staff."

"In short, while our organizations may have differences of opinions, when it comes to COVID-19 we are fully united: We will care for everyone and no patients or staff will be discriminated against," the spokesperson said.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the views of Samaritan's Purse "troubling" and said his administration will monitor the situation to ensure that there is no discrimination, according to NBC New York.

"I'm very concerned to make sure this is done right, but if this is done right, we need all the help we can get," he said at a news conference.

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