Antigay group challenges Disney World's "no-fly zone"

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 05 2003 12:00 AM ET

The airspace above Walt Disney World has been free of aircraft since March, when the government said the resort was a terrorism target of symbolic value. But a Christian organization that wants to send banner-towing planes over the theme park during this week's Gay Days festivities believes the no-fly zone equals no free speech. The Virginia-based Family Policy Network seeks to preach during Gay Days "the truth that Christ can set them free from the sin of homosexuality," according to the organization's Web site. The 13th annual Gay Days, which starts Thursday and lasts four days, is expected to draw more than 100,000 gay and lesbian tourists. While Disney doesn't sponsor Gay Days, which includes several events planned around the weekend under no single organizer, the Magic Kingdom theme park is the center of the activities.

Part of FPN's outreach program, said president Joe Glover, would include planes pulling banners reading, "JESUS CHRIST: HOPE FOR HOMOSEXUALS.COM." The same banner was flown in 2001 without incident, FPN said. But Federal Aviation Administration restrictions now prohibit aircraft from flying within 3,000 feet of ground level or within three nautical miles of the resort, located about 25 miles southwest of Orlando, Fla. No-fly zones also cover Disney parks in Anaheim, Calif.

A lawsuit by FPN and an aerial advertising company, AirSign, seeking a temporary rollback of the flight restrictions is expected to be filed in U.S. district court in Orlando this week, with the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy handling the legal work. Stephen M. Crampton, chief counsel for the AFA, said Disney has long desired no-fly zones around its properties to prevent competitors from advertising. But fears of terrorism gave the entertainment giant the cover it needed, he said. "We're not advertising; we're trying to reach a specific target audience with a very specific, noncommercial message," Crampton said from his office in Tupelo, Miss. "But Disney and Disney alone has managed to achieve a total ban, effectively, on such speech."

Disney spokeswoman Rena Callahan said the "safety and enjoyment" of its guests are the only reasons the company wants the no-fly zones and that it wants them kept in place. "We pursued the FAA restrictions for the safety and enjoyment of our guests and believe this extra layer of protection is in the best interests of those who work and visit the Walt Disney World Resort," Callahan said. The no-fly regulations were part of an appropriations package approved by Congress in March, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said, and any attempt to repeal them would have to be addressed through legislation. She refused further comment. A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which would defend the regulations, did not return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.

Nan Schultz, vice president of Orlando Gay Days 2003, refused to discuss FPN's plane plans. "We like to comment on the positive issues of Gay Days: the economic impact to the area, the 125,000 people coming here to have a good time," Schultz said.

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