Minister Protesting Pride Event Now in Jail

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday March 25, 2010

A street preacher who intruded on an Elmira, New York gay pride event along with three others in 2007 has been arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Julian Raven had been fined $100 for refusing to obey police, who ordered him and several others out of a park where the pride event was taking place at the time. He could have faced 15 days in jail for not paying the fine; reports say that he was sentenced to only nine days. Anti-gay religious conservatives agree with the preacher, who says that his constitutional rights to freedom of speech have been violated.

The case is on appeal and may be headed to the New York supreme court, according to Elmira news channel WETM channel 18. The four originally were found guilty in 2008, but on appeal the charges against three of the defendants were dismissed, with the court finding that there was insufficient evidence that the protesters knew they had been ordered by police to leave. Only Raven, the leader, still faced charges relating to the events of a street preaching action on June 23, 2007, when the four--clad in bright red T-shirts emblazoned with messages such as "Free from sin"--assumed kneeling and lying positions near a gay pride event.

Police spoke with Raven and told him to leave. Raven refused to comply, leading to his arrest and the arrests of the others. Raven seemed to welcome the prospect of his case being heard by the state's supreme court, telling the media, "As Christians we have the responsibility and obligation to stand for our right and appeal to the highest court of the land so we can get a fair hearing."

Raven, and anti-gay Christians supportive of him, says that he has the right to pray in public even during an event that draws people who might take offense at the message.

The free speech argument is familiar, having been used by other street preachers in the past. Most notably, Fred Phelps and his extended family--who comprise the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church--have used the free speech argument to avoid prosecution for picketing funerals of gays and, more recently, fallen American servicemembers. The Westboro congregation targets servicemembers' funerals because they say that troop casualties are a sign of God's displeasure with gains that GLBT Americans have made in recent decades.

Right-wing religious organizations such as the anti-gay American Family Association have made arrests of street preachers into causes celebre and fundraising occasions. One letter sent by the leader of the American Family Association depicted a group of street preachers--from an organization called Repent America--has been in circulation via email since January of 2005. The email solicits funds and talks about how the so-called "Philadelphia 4" were arrested for peacefully praying at a gay event, OutFest, in October of 2004.

"When they tried to speak, they were surrounded by a group of radical homosexual activists dubbed the Pink Angels," the email claims. "A videotape of the incident shows the Pink Angels interfering with the Christians' movement on the street, holding up large pink symbols of angels to cover up the Christians' messages and blowing high pitched whistles to drown out their preaching." The Pink Angels were volunteer security at the event.

"Rather than arrest the homosexual activists and allow the Christians to exercise their First Amendment rights, the Philadelphia police arrested and jailed the Christians!" the letter exclaims.

Urban Legends

An article on the letter and the events it purports to describe posted at under "Urban Legends" calls the email "a partisan call to action," and cites another version of what happened.

"Whereas the text [of the email] describes the evangelical protesters as peaceably preaching the gospel and passing out fliers when police arrested them, city officials say the group was actually attempting to disrupt a stage performance by shouting anti-homosexual slogans and Bible passages through a bullhorn," the article says. "As an angry crowd surrounded them, the protesters repeatedly disobeyed a police order to relocate, at which point they were placed under arrest." The article says that 11 members of repent America were arrested, and notes that charges were dismissed in the case of some of the protesters.

Last year, Pastor Billy Ball and others associated with Faith Baptist Church, a Primrose, Georgia, house of worship, took to the sidewalks of Manchester, Georgia, with signs bearing various slogans, including "Three Gay Rights: AIDS / Hell / Salvation" and "Repent or Burn," reported an Aug. 31, 2009 article at anti-gay religious Web site WorldNetDaily. The Primrose contingent also cited their Constitutional rights to free expression and peaceable assembly when they were arrested for disobeying police orders.

The Faith Baptist Church website boasted of the "Sons of Thundr" and declared, "The War is On." Added text at the site, "It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God... Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!"

The site also presented the text of slogans that appeared on shirts worn by church members to anti-gay demonstrations, including the slogan, "Hell Fire Home of All: Queers, Faggots, Lesbians, Transvestites, Sodomites! Aka Gays."

When police informed Rev. Billy Ball and Chris Pettrigrew that they would need a permit for their street preaching action, the Baptist church members protested that they did not need permits to assemble and publicly declare their religious opposition to gays and lesbians. The article quoted Pettigrew as saying that he told the police, "It's our constitutional right to free speech. We're not impeding any kind of traffic. We're peaceably assembled, so we're going to do what we came to do."

The police insisted; so did the Baptist demonstrators; Pettigrew and Ball were placed under arrest, but upon their release they headed right back to the same spot to resume their street preaching. Said Pettigrew, "We weren't going to let them bully us into going home." The cycle repeated itself, and then repeated again. Each time the men were taken in, they headed back to continue their anti-gay protest.

"By the end of the day, I had been arrested three times, and my pastor was arrested four times--simply because we wouldn't go away," Pettigrew boasted, going on to declare, "We're sick and tired of people telling us what we can and can't do. It's not constitutional." As the day, and the cycle of arrests, wore on, others joined Ball and Pettigrew, having driven from North and South Carolina, the article said. Eventually, the anti-gay demonstration included eleven participants.

"By that time they had ceased arresting us, with the exception of my pastor, who was arrested late in the evening," Pettigrew said. The article reported that, according to Pettigrew, the church group is careful never to break the law--to a point: Pettigrew said the he and the others in the group would observe and obey the law "as long as it doesn't interfere with constitutional rights."

Saying that he would not have faced arrest if he had been on the sidewalk proclaiming a commercial venture, Pettrigew postulated that his "Christian message" had drawn the police to his group and led to the arrests. "If they arrest us for proclaiming the word of God, what will they arrest us for next?" Continued Pettrigrew, "We need to get the word out that the rights of the American people are quickly being taken away, and nobody even knows it."

A Columbia City Paper article from Sept. 18, 2007, profiled Pastor Ball briefly. "Pastor Billy Ball... has been to more gay parades than a pair of rainbow-colored bicycle shorts," the article observed, going on to cite the pastor's anti-gay shirt and describing it as "a special collared shirt tailor made for [Pride], perfect for a round of golf and a quick dinner at Saluda's afterwards."

Officials 'Eager' to Arrest Raven?

WorldNetDaily also covered the Julian Raven story. A March 24 article reported that Raven had been detained and was in jail despite his case being on appeal. "We are surprised at how eager the city was to arrest Mr. Raven again in light of his appeal," said Raven's lawyer, Joel Oster, who is with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization that describes itself on its website as being "A legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth."

"Now he will serve time in jail," said Oster, adding, "however, we will continue to aggressively pursue his appeal in court." The article said that Raven was placed under arrest while at his office, and that he was escorted to jail following a court appearance.

An EDGE article on the Raven case from Aug. 22, 2008, reported that Elmira police officer Sgt. Sharon Moyer had told Raven a few minutes before his arrest that he would be allowed to enter the park, but that he was not to "confront" anyone. Moyer saw the behavior that the protesters were engaging in and the effect that their conduct was having on the crowd and grew concerned. Moyer arrested Raven the other three.

Though the street preachers claimed to have been praying silently, other witnesses disputed this, saying that the four protesters were reciting Scripture aloud in the midst of the Pride participants. The judge in the case found that Raven had behaved recklessly by intruding directly into the crowd of Pride celebrants, rather than confining the group's activities to the sidewalk around the park.

The case bore similarities to the case in March of the same year in which Soulforce Freedom Riders were arrested for stepping off a sidewalk onto the grounds of Mississippi College, a school with an official anti-gay policy. The Freedom Riders had stopped by the college as part of a tour of anti-gay colleges and universities; the moment Riders stepped off the sidewalk, they were placed under arrest for trespassing.

The following month, in Dade Country, Georgia, Soulforce civil rights volunteers were arrested at Covenant College when they stepped onto the grounds during their attempt to speak with students about the school's anti-gay policies.

The suit also bears similarities to legal action pursued in the 1990s, as gay equality advocates sought to have their right to free expression honored by St. Patrick's Day parade organizers in Boston.

The courts sided with the parade organizers in ruling that the organizers had the right to prevent gays from participating even though the parade took place on public streets.

Said Elmira Mayor John Tonello of the Pride event targeted by Raven and the other anti-gay Christian protesters, "I was at the event last year and this year, and [the protesters] like to call it a city-sanctioned event. But we issue permits for people to appear in parks and other locations across the city all year long.

"This was just another group that has the free right to use city facilities in that way."

The Coulter Connection

Elmira city authorities maintain that the protesters were arrested partly for their own protection, as their conduct and message risked inciting the crowd. The story was picked up by conservative chat site Free, which frequently hosts conversations about gay and lesbian news. "Peaceful people breaking no law are arrested because someone ELSE might make trouble?" wrote one chat participant. "OH, wait--they were CHRISTIANS! Oh, okay then.... I swear, I'm going to get even further back into the woods. I can totally understand why people, over the ages, went off to live in a cave far from 'society.' "

Wrote another, "But the Wiccan's [sic] pray publicly, in groups. This guy aught [sic] to sue."

A third wrote, "It's like the dustup with Ann Coulter in Canada: she couldn't speak because the people who hate her were violent." The comment was a reference to a recently cancelled appearance that conservative pundit Ann Coulter was scheduled to make at the University of Ottawa. After the university's provost cautioned Coulter that hate speech laws in Canada are stricter than in the United States, Coulter claimed that the notification was a "threat" by the university "to criminally prosecute me for my speech." Coulter lashed back with, "Now that the provost has instructed me on the criminal speech laws he apparently believes I have a proclivity (to break), despite knowing nothing about my speech, I see that he is guilty of promoting hatred against an identifiable group: conservatives.

"The provost simply believes and is publicizing his belief that conservatives are more likely to commit hate crimes in their speeches," Coulter continued. "Not only does this promote hatred against conservatives, but it promotes violence against conservatives," a March 23 article reported her saying. Coulter's appearance was eventually canceled due to safety concerns, when university officials grew concerned that the crowd that had gathered might pose a threat to her.

At another Canadian appearance, at the University of Western Ontario, Coulter advised a Muslim student that rather than traveling by air, he should "take a camel."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.