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FIRST-PERSON: Christians must defend the ‘Philadelphia Four’

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Last week’s column addressed the plight of Christians facing serious criminal charges for their part in a demonstration that took place during an outdoor homosexual pride event in Philadelphia. This week, I feel compelled to revisit the subject.

One reason I am chewing my cabbage twice, as it were, is to ensure the details of the situation are conveyed correctly. Another is to stress the serious nature of the prosecution taking place in the City of Brotherly Love.

In October, 11 members of Repent America were arrested while demonstrating during OutFest, a public celebration of homosexuality held annually in Philadelphia. Charges against six of the protestors have been dropped.

As it stands now, four of the demonstrators have been charged with eight crimes. If convicted, each of what has been dubbed the “Philadelphia Four” could receive a sentence of up to 47 years in prison. A fifth person, a teenage demonstrator, may be dealt with via the juvenile justice system.

Of the crimes the four are charged with, the most troubling are possession of instruments of crime and ethnic intimidation.

Video of the demonstration, captured by documentary filmmakers from San Francisco, reveals that members of Repent America had in their possession Bibles, a bullhorn and signs. The most prominent message conveyed via the signs was: “Homosexuality Is Sin, Christ Can Set You Free.”

How do Bibles, a bullhorn and signs constitute instruments of crime? From what I viewed the Bibles were not thrown, the bullhorn was not used to convey threats and the signs were not used as clubs. What rationale did the district attorney use in charging Repent America with possession of instruments of crime?

According to the Internet news site WorldNetDaily, the DA characterized Repent America’s preaching and signs as “hateful, disgusting, despicable words,” that constituted “fighting words.”

Fighting words — which are not protected by the First Amendment — are understood as speech that is abusive and threatening, delivered in person, with the intent of inciting violence toward a specific individual or group.

I am quite certain that those attending OutFest found the message of Repent America offensive. I am equally sure they found the signs irritating and insulting. However, for the DA to describe messages from the Bible — displayed on signs — as fighting words, thus rendering them instruments of crime, is outrageous.

The First Amendment does not shield from offense, insult and irritation. In fact, the opposite is true. “Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word,” observed Secretary of State Colin Powell. To live in America is to risk exposure to words and ideas that offend, insult and irritate.

While I do not endorse the tactics of Repent America, they — like any other group — have the right to express their beliefs in public. As long as the demonstration is peaceful and absent of violence and the threat of violence, almost any message can be conveyed.

The charge of ethnic intimidation is ominous.

Pennsylvania, like many other states, has hate crime legislation that places offenses committed against members of specific groups into a special category. In 2002, legislators in the Keystone State added an individual’s “actual or perceived sexual orientation” and “gender or gender identity” to the list that deserves special attention under the law.

According to the Philadelphia District Attorney, a biblical message that homosexuality is sin and that change is possible constitutes a hate crime. A simple message delivered in a calm and non-threatening manner, by 11 people, is so pernicious that it constitutes “ethnic intimidation.”

If the four members of Repent America are convicted of the aforementioned charges, it will set a precedent with consequences that will be far-reaching.

If the Philadelphia DA is successful, what will prevent someone from accusing a pastor of a hate crime for preaching that homosexuality is a sin? It can be argued that a church is quasi public space. After all, everyone is invited and welcome to attend.

The charge that some churches preach hate already is occurring. Soulforce, a homosexual advocacy group, routinely protests the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, accusing member churches of committing “spiritual violence” against homosexuals.

Criminal charges will not even have to be filed. All an enterprising homosexual group will have to do is file a lawsuit against a church, charging civil rights violations because of a congregation’s “message of hate.” Most churches are small and would be hard pressed to fund an adequate defense.

It is time for Christians to unite in the defense of truth. While Repent America is being singled out for prosecution today, it could be your pastor and your church tomorrow.
Kelly Boggs is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore. His column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.
— Contact information for the District Attorney of Philadelphia:

The Honorable Lynne M. Abraham

Library 5th Floor

1421 Arch Street

Philadelphia, PA 19102-1507

Phone: (215) 686-8000

Fax: (215) 563-0047
— Contact information for the U.S. Department of Justice:

U.S. Department of Justice

Civil Rights Division

Chief Albert Moskowitz

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Criminal Section, PHB

Washington, D.C. 20530

Phone: 202-514-4540

U.S. Department of Justice

Special Litigation Section

Chief Shanetta Y. Cutlar

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20530

Phone: 202-514-6255

Toll free: (877) 218-5228

    About the Author

  • Kelly Boggs