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Nation's eyes on Christian Protesters

Philadelphia Inquirer

A Philadelphia criminal case is getting considerable national attention. And it's not about political corruption.

Four members of a local Christian group, Repent America, are facing felony charges in connection with their behavior in the fall during the gay and lesbian community's annual Outfest celebration in Center City.

For allegedly trying to disrupt the event with their bullhorn-amplified, Scripture-based denunciations of homosexuality, they have been accused of criminal conspiracy, incitement to riot, and violating the state's law against hate crimes.

Several conservative Christian groups, including the American Family Association and Concerned Women for America, say the "Philadelphia Four" are being prosecuted solely for voicing their religious beliefs.

"This homofascism has come to our doorstep; it's in America," said Ralph Ovadal, head of Wisconsin Christians United, in a recent radio program. "Christians need to wake up and realize how quickly the walls are closing in on their religious liberties, on their religious duties to preach the gospel."

Outfest organizers say the defendants indulged in garden-variety gay-bashing on the day in question and seemed intent on provoking a physical confrontation that could have turned ugly.

"They were there with plain old homophobia, hiding behind the Bible, hiding behind the First Amendment," said Fanny Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents. "I really think a couple of them are a danger to society... . They're trying to make themselves look like martyrs."

Charged are Michael Marcavage, 25, of Lansdowne, the leader of Repent America; James Cruise, 53, of Richmond, Va.; Mark Diener, 33, of Philadelphia; and Dennis Green, 38, of Petersburg, Va.

If convicted, they could receive lengthy prison sentences. As a condition of bail, they have been barred from getting within 100 feet of any "homosexual event."

Although the precise sequence of events is in dispute, the general outline of what happened Oct. 10 is relatively clear, thanks to several videotapes and the police report.

Early that afternoon, 11 demonstrators led by Marcavage entered the eight-block area around 13th and Chancellor Streets where Outfest was taking place. Marcavage had a Bible in one hand, a bullhorn tucked under the other arm, and a Repent America baseball cap on his head.

The demonstrators were no strangers to event organizers or police. Repent America had brought its message - "Homosexuality Is Sin, Christ Can Set You Free" - to previous gay-pride events. In addition, group members had been thrown out of Citizens Bank Park in August for bringing in a banner to protest the Phillies' observance of Gay Community Day.

Soon after their arrival, Marcavage and company were surrounded by Outfest's makeshift security force, which was armed with pink whistles and eight-foot-tall boards of pink-colored insulation mounted on sticks. The force's goal was to prevent the group's signs from being seen and its words from being heard.

Eventually, a crowd formed, and police, who said in their report that they wanted to prevent violence, instructed the demonstrators to go to the edge of the Outfest area. A videotape shows Marcavage asking officers to protect his own freedoms of speech and movement.

After complying with two orders to move and refusing a third, the demonstrators were told they would be arrested. At that point, Marcavage sat down in the street, forcing police to haul him away.

He says now that the felony charges stunned him.

"It's malicious prosecution, and they'll be held accountable," he said in an interview. Referring to the city's district attorney, he said: "I think that Lynne Abraham is attempting to set a precedent under the hate-crimes legislation that speaking from the Bible, the word of God, regarding homosexuality is a hate crime."

Through her spokeswoman, Cathie Abookire, Abraham said she was pursuing the charges in the belief that "everyone's rights must be protected."

Since the arrests, there have been several developments.

In December, the defendants went to federal court in Philadelphia, alleging that their free-speech rights had been violated. U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker refused their request that she block local authorities from prosecuting the charges.

And in a preliminary hearing, Municipal Court Judge William A. Meehan, who is handling the case, dismissed charges against six of the demonstrators, reducing the size of the group to four. The status of the 11th protester, a 17-year-old girl, has yet to be determined.

In court today, C. Scott Shields, a Media-based lawyer who represents the four defendants, plans to seek the lifting of the order banning his clients from getting near gay events.

Several of the Christian groups have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the behavior of Abraham's office and the police. A department spokesman, Eric Holland, said officials were reviewing the request.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric used on behalf of the Philadelphia Four continues to heat up.

"Jim Crow has been resurrected in Philadelphia, and instead of being targeted at African Americans, he is targeting Christians," Joe Murray, a lawyer with the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy, said during a radio program that reminded listeners that Philadelphia is the home of the Abscam scandal and the MOVE bombing.

"If this city were built on a swamp, I'd say it needs to be drained," Murray said, "because it's a dirty city."