February 23, 2005
The American Family Association of Pennsylvania is demanding that a judge apologize to members of a Christian group who were arrested during an outreach to homosexuals for comparing the street ministers to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, though acquitted, the Christian activists may be heading back into court.
Last week, Judge Pamela Dembe of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas dropped all charges against adult defendants belonging to the Christian group Repent America, who were arrested last fall for witnessing during a homosexual pride event in Philadelphia. The charges against the remaining member of the "Philly 5," a 17-year-old girl, were also dropped.
Eleven Christians were initially arrested, a group that ranged from 17 to 72 years of age. They were taken into custody and held in jail for 21 hours, simply for ministering at a city-funded, public homosexual event called "OutFest" in October 2004. They were charged with three felonies and five misdemeanors and faced a potential sentence of up to 47 years in prison and $90,000 in fines each.
Some of the charges were dropped without a hearing, but four of the adult Repent America members that had been arrested -- Michael Marcavage, Mark Diener, Dennis Green, and James Cruse -- were bound over for trial by District Court Judge William Austin Meehan. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Lauren Murch faced a separate trial.
Justice Served with an Unflattering Comparison
According to WorldNetDaily reports, when Judge Dembe reviewed the evidence -- much of it provided by Repent America, since the group had videotaped the events leading up to the arrests -- she found no basis for the allegations against the remaining defendants and dismissed the charges. Dembe is also the judge who, last month, removed the bail requirement that the defendants keep at least 100 feet away from any homosexual gathering.
After hearing arguments and reviewing the videotape of the arrests, the Common Pleas judge noted that America is one of the few countries in the world "that protects unpopular speech." She said this means "Nazis can March in Skokie, Illinois" and "the Ku Klux Klan can march where they wish to" since, in the U.S., "we cannot stifle speech because we don't want to hear it, or we don't want to hear it now."
But while Diane Gramley, president of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, is glad justice was served, she feels the remarks the judge made in dismissing the charges should have been withheld. She says the Repent America members did not deserve to be compared with fascists and white supremacists, especially after all they had been through.
"For 18 weeks their life has been in an upheaval," Gramley says, "and then the judge who dismisses the charges makes these statements. It's just outrageous as far as I'm concerned, and I would encourage folks to contact her and let her know that her comments were not appreciated."
Gramley feels Dembe's framing comments put the defendants on a par with hate-filled groups and characterized the Christian activists unfairly. "We're very pleased that the judge handed down the decision that she did," the pro-family spokeswoman says, "but we just wish she had not used the words Nazis and KKK in the statement that she made, equating Repent America with those types of hate organizations."
When Love of God and Neighbor Becomes a Hate Crime
Repent America founder Michael Marcavage would say that, far from being a hate group, his group is offering a loving response to sins that are destroying the social fabric of America. He feels the ministry has a calling and a responsibility to confront abortion, homosexuality, and other sins, and in describing its mission, he says, "If we love God, we will obey His commandments; and if we love our neighbors, we will go to them with the Word of God, so that they may be saved."
But after coming through his arrest and the ordeal of being tried in court for ministering at OutFest, Marcavage notes that the price of godly obedience is becoming increasingly steep in an increasingly faith-hostile America. "Christianity is being criminalized," he says. "The attack against Christians by government officials has never been so extreme. Not only are they removing symbols of Christianity from the public square, but they are now removing the Christians themselves."
Marcavage says what he finds most disturbing about this case, aside from "the arrests, imprisonment, and malicious prosecution," is the use of Pennsylvania hate crime law, which has added sexual orientation as a protected category. "Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham knew exactly what she was doing when she targeted us with the hate law due to our biblical opposition to homosexual behavior," the Repent America spokesman says. He notes that Abraham sits on the National Executive Committee of the Anti-Defamation League, whose members he calls "the architects of the hate crimes legislation."
Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, has worked on behalf of the Philadelphia Christian group in the federal courts. In a statement responding to this latest ruling, he commented that the AFA Law Center is pleased for its clients as well as relieved that "justice has finally been done in the criminal system, and though it is apparently slow and rusty, the system still works."
But according to Fahling, Judge Dembe's decision to dismiss the charges ends only the first chapter in the ongoing saga of the Philadelphia 11. The group's legal representatives will be pursuing federal legal action against the arresting officers and the City of Philadelphia, and they are calling for a Department of Justice investigation into the corruption and abuse of power they allege took place in the so-called City of Brotherly Love.