challenge "don't ask, don't tell" policy at West Point
The U.S. Military
Academy in West Point, N.Y., planned to deny entry
Wednesday to a busload of gay rights activists as they
completed their cross-country tour of 20 conservative
Christian and military colleges with a challenge to
the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy they say
keeps gay cadets closeted. Soulforce Equality Riders
have been arrested at five campuses. Ten members were
handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct after
demonstrating April 14 at the U.S. Air Force Academy
in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"They've already made it clear that their
purpose is to protest," Lt. Col. Kent Cassella, West
Point spokesman, said Monday. "In accordance with
federal law, it's unlawful for them to engage in
demonstrations or picketing or protest at the U.S. Military Academy."
Soulforce spokesman Richard Lindsay said the
group declined to agree to restrictions preventing
them from handing out literature, carrying signs,
or making formal presentations. "We mainly just want to
discuss the policy with cadets," he said. "Our main goal is
dialogue. Our main goal is not to be arrested."
Before the protest at the Air Force Academy,
Soulforce codirector Jacob Reitan had said that
members intended to violate a similar policy and face
arrest. Military police were called when the protesters took
out signs and used a loudspeaker.
Soulforce opposes policies banning enrollment of
lesbian and gay students, calling the policies
discriminatory and hurtful to students forced to deny
their sexual orientation. The policy for the U.S. military
and its service academies, set by Congress and signed into
law by President Clinton, allows gays and lesbians to
serve in the armed forces if they abstain from
homosexual activity and do not disclose their sexual orientation.
"We also want to make it clear that the majority
of schools have welcomed us on campus," Lindsay said.
"We've had a full dialogue where we've been able to
present in classes and have discussions with
administration and faculty and really good discussions with
students about ending policies that discriminate
against lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual people
at their schools."
The 33 riders from the group, based in
Lynchburg, Va., as well as supporters from New York
City planned to gather late Wednesday morning at the
academy's Thayer Gate in the village of Highland Falls. At
the start of their seven-week tour, 24 were charged
with trespassing March 10 at Jerry Falwell's Liberty
University in Lynchburg. Soulforce was founded in 1999
by Mel White, a former ghostwriter for evangelists Falwell
and Pat Robertson, after he came out as gay.
Six members were also charged with trespassing
trying to step onto the campus at Robertson's Regent
University in Virginia Beach, Va., Lindsay said. Six
were likewise charged at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa,
Okla., and 24 were charged at Brigham Young in Provo, Utah.
They also visited Lee University, Cleveland,
Tenn.; Union University, Jackson, Tenn.; Oklahoma
Baptist University, Shawnee, Okla.; Abilene Christian
University, Abilene, Texas; Texas A&M, College Station;
CCCU Conference, Dallas; Biola University, La Mirada,
Calif.; California Baptist University, Riverside;
Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, Calif.; Colorado
Christian University, Lakewood; NorthCentral University,
Minneapolis; Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn.; Wheaton
College, Wheaton, Ill.; and Eastern University, St.
None of the schools have changed their policies
since the visits, Lindsay said. "I'd say there were
seeds planted at each of these schools that over time
we're hoping that they'll really grow."
Last October 21 about 40 members of the group
stood vigil at a gate of the U.S. Naval Academy in
Annapolis, Md., for a half hour before they were
allowed to lunch in a visitors' cafeteria and went onto the
campus, where they greeted a few midshipmen after they
were told they couldn't protest.
"From our position, freedom to express personal
opinion is one of the hallmarks of our democracy,"
Cassella said. "But federal law has long
recognized...that military installations are not public
forums, so in order for military installations to
carry out their missions they have to remain
politically neutral and therefore can't serve as forums for
political debate or expression."
Cassella said visitors can enter West Point
grounds for scheduled appointments or business, and
the academy also has a contracted tour bus service for
visitors. "But Soulforce had made it clear that they
weren't coming here as tourists," he said. (AP)