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LGBT activists
challenge "don't ask, don't tell" policy at West Point

LGBT activists
challenge "don't ask, don't tell" policy at West Point

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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 "don't ask, don't tell" military policy they say keeps gay cadets closeted.

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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. Davids, Pa. 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)

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LGBT activists
challenge "don't ask, don't tell" policy at West Point

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