ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Flanked by sheriff’s deputies, 31 protesters were marched quickly to three white vans parked near the far south corner of the Orange County Convention Center as the June 14 business session began during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla.
The protesters, taken from a sidewalk plaza in front of the convention center, only moments before had walked three abreast in parade-like fashion, with arms linked, from the parking lot of the Omni Rosen Hotel across the street to the convention center. There, 63 protesters had knelt and prayed silently for about two minutes before singing “We Have Overcome.” About half remained across the street as those arrested continued on, carrying a four-foot banner proclaiming, “Stop Spiritual Violence.”
Twenty-seven of those arrested are with Soulforce, a national network of homosexual activists led by Mel White, and four represented People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. White is Soulforce’s founder and a former associate of Jerry Falwell. He later announced he was a homosexual.
Soulforce notified their members last month that a prayer vigil was planned at the SBC’s annual meeting in Orlando as part of a long-term effort in civil disobedience at national and regional church conferences. The SBC became a target when language proposed to clarify Baptist beliefs in the Baptist Faith and Message statement included references to homosexuality.
“[Southern Baptists’] teaching and practices are acts of spiritual violence,” stated White, just before an Orange County sheriff begin making arrests. “They say that to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered is to be in a broken relationship with God , that one has to be non-gay …[and] purely defined as a male or female in order to be in a whole, healthy relationship with God.
White said these beliefs “violate the dignity and integrity” of homosexuals and constitute an act of “spiritual violence.”
White was soon interrupted by Tim Cannon, field commander of the emergency response team for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Cannon warned protesters they were participating in an illegal assembly pursuant to County Ordinance 870.4 and should leave the premises immediately. In less than 15 minutes, almost two dozen arresting officers led the protesters from the area, handcuffing them with thin plastic straps once they neared police vans.
A Soulforce press release dated June 8 stated that 2,000 protesters were anticipated at a protest at the Southern Baptist Convention and at a “mandatory” training session June 13 at Joy Metropolitan Community Church in Orlando.
By the morning of the protest, White’s predictions had dropped to 25. An e-mail dated June 10, titled “Soulforce Alert,” warned protesters of a possible $500 fine, up to 24 hours in jail prior to an arraignment and the possibility of another 60 days in jail.
Cannon said the sheriff’s department had been in negotiation with Soulforce prior to the arrests. He said they had been told to bring cash and identification for easier processing.
Jack Wilkerson, SBC vice president for business and finance, said he met with White June 13, at White’s request, to discuss plans for the protest.
“I told him we would receive him in the spirit of Christ,” said Wilkerson, “but we would not allow him to disrupt the convention.”
Wilkerson and others said they did not observe protesters in the hall or convention center at any time prior to or directly following the planned protest. Soulforce representatives were observed congregating in the lobby of the convention hotel, the Omni Rosen, and speaking with reporters on the morning of the protest.
Wilkerson praised the cooperation of the sheriff’s department in communicating prior to the protest.
“They have helped us make our meeting comfortable for our Southern Baptist family,” he said. “That was our goal.”
The four protesters representing PETA did not announce plans to stage a demonstration prior to June 14, according to Cannon. Two men, one dressed as a bright yellow chicken and the other as “Jesus,” were taken into custody after they argued with sheriff’s deputies.
Ed Harris, the first Soulforce protester arrested, said he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister by the First Southern Missionary Baptist Church, Kerman, Calif., almost 40 years ago. He said he received the master of divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., in 1989, and was pastor of Reece’s Chapel in Mill Creek, N.C., from 1989-91. Married for nine years, Harris said he was divorced in the early 1960s and announced he was a homosexual in 1995.
Harris, now a member of Metropolitan Community Church, Roanoke, Va., said he believes the new Baptist Faith and Message unfairly excludes homosexuals.
Harris and other protesters wore a T-shirt with the words: “We Are Thy Neighbors (and thy organists, thy clergy, thy SS teachers, thy deacons, thy elders, thy ushers).” The back of the T-shirts featured a large red stop sign and the words “Stop Spiritual Violence.” He and others carried small black-and-white signs saying, “Father Forgive Them.” Five of the protesters, three men and two women, wore liturgical collars.
Matt Sanders, Doy Cave, Karen Willoughby & Michael Foust contributed to this article.