- November 12, 2008
JACKSON, Tenn. (ABP)—Three gay-rights activists were arrested on the campus of Baptist-affiliated Union University and others were arrested on other campuses, but not at Dallas Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
The Union arrests occurred during the next-to-last stop on the 2008 Equality Ride, a tour of 15 Southern religious schools by Soulforce Q. The organization is the young-adult division of a group that fights discrimination against gays with nonviolent protest.
Police arrested 21-year-old Zak Rittenhouse of Frankfort, Ohio; 22-year-old Manny Lampon of New York City; and 22-year-old Jarrett Lucas of Minneapolis, Minn., a co-director of the 2008 Equality Ride, on trespassing charges. The arrests came after campus security warned them to leave an area declared off-limits to the riders.
University officials offered to let the activists into Luther Hall, a building located across a public street from the main campus, and told students, faculty and staff interested in dialogue about their presence. Instead, the riders chose to stand vigil inside one of three entrances to the campus.
Handcuffed by police
After meeting only three students, they chose to march toward a higher-traffic area of campus. They were told to turn back or face prosecution. Three refused to retreat. They were handcuffed and driven away in a police car.
“Although Union University cannot affirm this group’s message, the university leadership made an attempt to offer dialogue and Christian hospitality to Equality Riders,” Union officials said in a statement. “It is regrettable that the leadership of Soulforce responded by rejecting these offers.”
One of the activists, Rachel Watson, is a Union University graduate.
“It was heartbreaking to have my alma mater turn me away from campus,” Watson said. “I wanted to talk to students about my life and the pain I experienced as a lesbian on Union University’s campus, but instead I was locked out of my own school.”
Watson, 22, of Jackson, Tenn., is a former member of Union’s soccer team. She said she knew she was a lesbian even before deciding to attend the school, but she had been a fan of Union’s athletic teams and thought she would feel safe attending a Christian university that encourages students to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Watson said she received different treatment from several faculty and students, who she said looked down on her. “It was difficult, but I feel like I never lost sight of who I was,” she said.
Soulforce was founded by Mel White, a formerly well-connected evangelical minister who ghost-wrote books for religious figures including Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The group says more than 200 colleges and universities have explicit policies that discriminate against students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Visiting 50 schools
Now in its third year, the Equality Ride has visited more than 50 of those schools, where riders say students often are unaware of such policies. Union University, for example, has a policy prohibiting “sexual impropriety,” which is defined as “engaging in premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, homosexual activities or cohabitation on campus or off campus.”
Arrests are nothing new for the 17 participants in this year’s Equality Ride. Arrests occurred at Central Baptist College in Conway, Ark.; Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie; Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss.; Heritage Christian University in Florence, Ala.; and Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Some campuses, however, were more hospitable. At Baptist-affiliated Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.—the first stop on the Oct. 2-Nov. 13 tour and the location where 20 people were arrested on the first Equality Ride in 2006—this time five riders were allowed to enter campus to deliver books to the library affirming gay and lesbian people.
Dallas Baptist University allowed dialogue termed “unprecedented” Oct. 24, engaging students, faculty and administration. Blair Blackburn, executive vice president at DBU, said at a press conference that while the school’s “established beliefs may not coincide with the viewpoints of Soulforce on these issues, we understand anyone’s right to disagree and their desire for an opportunity to discuss.”
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth organized what Soulforce Q termed “a limited and formal exchange of ideas” with students, faculty, staff and administrators.
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