ST. LOUIS (BP)–A dozen homosexual rights protesters who tried to disrupt the Southern Baptist Convention proceedings inside a St. Louis convention center in June were released on misdemeanor charges only hours after being arrested.
The protestors, members of the group Soulforce, initially were charged with class “D” felonies. An assistant city prosecutor, however, reduced the charges to misdemeanor trespassing, with each protester’s fines and court costs totaling about $250.
The light penalty sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of religion, said Tim Wilkins, a former homosexual and founder of Cross Ministry, which helps the church reach homosexuals with the gospel.
“It’s nothing but a slap on the hand that does nothing to dissuade future disruptions,” Wilkins, of Raleigh, N.C., told The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. “It does not protect Southern Baptists’ right to assemble and worship without disruption from people who might disagree with them.”
Wilkins was a messenger at the convention’s annual meeting in St. Louis. He said protests by Soulforce are likely to become more disruptive if the law is not more strictly enforced by prosecutors.
“I wonder if the judicial system in St. Louis is possibly playing favorites,” Wilkins said. “They might be intimidated by militant gay organizations for fear of a backlash.”
Soulforce has demonstrated at the SBC the last three years against the SBC’s stances against the homosexual lifestyle.
In St. Louis, however, the group took its actions to a new level. A dozen people entered the convention center and during President James Merritt’s address, one by one started shouting chants such as “God loves God’s gay children.” The protesters were removed from the convention floor and arrested. They were originally charged with the felony of ethnic intimidation. The so-called hate crime charge was dropped, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Those arrested pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing and were fined $100 each, plus court costs, the St. Louis Circuit Clerk’s office reported. The office also noted it was unlikely any of the individuals spent time in jail.
Another 38 members of Soulforce were arrested outside the convention center trying to enter the building. According to the group, they were charged with two city ordinance violations and released after a few hours.
Although St. Louis police showed professionalism in enforcing the law by arresting the protesters, the court system failed to support the city’s law enforcement authorities, said Jack Wilkerson, SBC convention manager.
“We have a right to assemble and they have a right to protest, but not to disrupt our meeting,” Wilkerson told The Pathway, noting that the SBC sessions were a private meeting in a rented city facility. “We have the right,” he said, “to conduct the business of a private meeting.”
In planning the St. Louis convention, Wilkerson said the SBC went above and beyond even normal procedures to make sure messengers felt safe, adding that the Soulforce members were not successful in their attempts to disrupt the convention.
The SBC will continue to take a strong stand to provide a safe environment for messengers who attend the annual meeting in the face of future protests, Wilkerson said.
“We will continue to care about and love these people,” he said of the Soulforce activists. “They need the Lord Jesus.
“We’ll be fair and firm, but we will not endanger the process of the convention.”
The St. Louis operation was carefully planned, said Mel White, Soulforce founder, in an interview with The Pathway. “The arrests are media-driven street theater,” he said. “We don’t pretend that they aren’t.”
Two years ago, Soulforce members were arrested at the SBC’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., and fined $300 each. In 2001 in New Orleans, 34 members were arrested for trying to interfere with Southern Baptists right to assemble, but all charges were dropped and no fines were paid.
White said the group protests Southern Baptists over their biblical views on homosexuality, which, he claims, cause suffering for homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
“All in all, St. Louis was for us a wonderful success in light of understanding instead of winning,” White said of the message Soulforce is seeking to convey.
Southern Baptists have had an appropriate response to the homosexual rights movement, Wilkins said. “What we are doing at present with Soulforce is the best thing and that’s largely to ignore their continual barrage,” he said.
He urged Christians to reject Soulforce’s feel-good philosophy that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle. “All of us are created in God’s image but that is a fallen image because of sin,” an image in need of new birth, Wilkins said.
While in St. Louis, Wilkins visited Soulforce’s base of operations. White threatened to have him arrested and even had a police officer approach Wilkins. Later, White apologized for his actions.
But Wilkins said he fears the events in St. Louis are an example of a trend of unequal protection for religious groups, such as Southern Baptists.
“I would hate to think that the judicial system in St. Louis might have a bias against Southern Baptists or evangelical Christianity,” he said.
Wilkerson, meanwhile, said he hopes the St. Louis prosecutors’ actions do not reflect a trend of “failure to support law enforcement officers who put so much into their professional work.”
Mires is a correspondent with The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. (BP) file photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SLAP ON THE WRIST.