More than 20 gay rights activists were arrested on trespassing charges Friday when they stepped onto the campus of Liberty University, the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Many of the activists were part of Soulforce, a Lynchburg-based group on its first stop of a nationwide "Equality Ride" tour to promote gay rights at the nation's conservative Christian universities and military academies. Most of those arrested were members of the tour, but the group also included supporters from other colleges and the community.
Invoking the memory of the civil rights movement, Soulforce member Jacob Reitan said: "We want to come to the school today to say, ‘Learn from history.'"
"We have a right to be here, because this school teaches that being gay is being sick and sinful," said Reitan, co-director of Equality Ride. "We have a right to question and to show how we are children of God."
Reitan and other Soulforce members said they did not intend to be arrested at the campus, but just hoped to talk to Liberty students.
Putting a face with a label
"If you put a face on a gay or lesbian person, it's harder to discriminate," said Haven Herrin, the tour's other leader.
Some 60 people, including 35 members of the Equality Ride bus tour, gathered for the late morning rally on a sidewalk outside the school's main entrance. A music group played guitars and sang 1960s peace songs.
The 20 activists who actually entered the campus were arrested immediately.
Several Liberty students spoke to the Soulforce members. But the group didn't always find support. Comparing homosexuals to drug users and adulterers, Liberty senior Tray Faulkner said the university disapproves of any alternative lifestyle. "I know you guys don't think it's a sin," he said. "We do."
Campus police charged all of those arrested with trespassing, and two faced additional charges of inciting trespassing. They were restrained in plastic handcuffs before being taken to a local magistrate.
All were released without bail later in the day, pending a court appearance April 3. The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor charge is a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Falwell lays out position
Falwell, the university's chancellor, had warned the group that it would not be permitted on campus, saying he would not allow his school to be used for a media event aimed at raising money for gay rights.
"Neither will we permit them to espouse opinions or otherwise suggest beliefs or lifestyles that are in opposition to the morals and values that this institution promotes," he said in a statement issued earlier.
The tour group, made up of young adults from around the country, has scheduled visits to 19 colleges and universities this month and next.
Monday, the tour plans to visit Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia Beach, where Reitan said the group was prepared for more arrests. The school this week withdrew its invitation to three events on campus, citing a fear that the visit would turn into a publicity stunt.
"If we get arrested, it just shows how close-minded that campus is," Reitan said.