Group detained for a week; LGBT organizations protest
by Brandon Kneeful
One of Soulforce’s Equality Riders being taken away by police.
CLINTON, Miss. — The Soulforce Equality Riders arrived at the Mississippi College campus in Clinton March 20 seeking to end religion-based oppression of LGBT people at Christian colleges across the country. The riders are attempting to engage in a dialogue concerning the harmful effects of policies that silence or exclude LGBT students. Twenty-five LGBT and allied young adults made the trip. Four of the group’s members were arrested when they stepped off a public sidewalk and onto the grass in front of the college’s administration building. The fifth was arrested about an hour later for the same thing. The riders were given the choice of staying in jail for a week or performing three days of community service. They chose the latter and stayed behind in Clinton and reconnected with the bus in Alabama.
Authorities continued to harass the Equality Riders throughout the day. Local officers used harsh and intimidating language with the Riders.
SWAT teams from Clinton Township were also called in. The Soulforce Equality bus was continuously followed and forced to leave Clinton. As riders were waiting for some of the members of Soulforce to return a police vehicle approached the bus with its lights flashing, signaling the bus to move. The bus driver immediately turned down the nearest road and into a church parking lot to await the Equality Riders. The same officer once again followed them into the parking lot, with his lights on, and asked the driver to speak with him. The officer was quite aggressive in demanding that they “go on and get out of town.” Although the driver explained that they were still waiting on the remainder of our group, he was still forced to move the bus. At that time, they drove and parked the bus in a lot that was previously designated by the city of Clinton.
For the third time, a police vehicle approached them with flashing lights. The officer who had approached the bus was extremely indignant and asked, “What is your problem? We have already given you breaks today.” The driver explained that they were in the space the City provided for them. In response, the officer asserted that the driver would be arrested if he were to take Equality Riders anywhere else and not leave the city of Clinton immediately.
The following letter to Rosemary G. Aultman, Mayor of the City of Clinton, was endorsed by Lambda Legal, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, The National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Gay Alliance Against Defamation, The Human Rights Campaign and Log Cabin Republicans.
In it, the groups collectively asserted the following:
On March 20, Clinton police officials informed Soulforce that its members would be cited if they “attempt[ed] to gather or travel in a group of four or more” near the campus of Mississippi College. Lt. Thomas R. Ruffin acknowledged that the department’s actions “could be construed as conflicting with constitutional allowances,” but said that Soulforce’s presence in Clinton presented “valid public safety concerns.” This accusation is utterly without merit: Soulforce is enormously well respected across the country and is relentlessly nonviolent. Only after being contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union did the police lift the threat of citation.
Despite the arrests, riders and students engaged in constructive dialogue about sexuality, gender and faith. Over 100 Mississippi students eagerly awaited the Equality Riders in hopes of opening up this dialogue. Many shared stories of discrimination and fear for their lives.
Some students supported the group’s right to visit the school. “While I disagree with them, I believe we should welcome them,” 20-year-old student Alex Touchstone, of Meridian, said. “Jesus loves them the same as he loves us.”
“It was exciting and encouraging to see students cross school boundaries to engage in conversation,” said rider Brandy Daniels. “It really demonstrates that this is a conversation that students want to have, despite the opposition of the administration.”
“We come to these campuses to create dialogue and to be a support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” Daniels said.
“Mississippi College teaches that LGBT people are sick and sinful. But we know and express that God affirms LGBT people in their identity and truth.”
Mississippi College is only one of 32 Christian colleges and universities included as part of its second annual Soulforce Equality Ride.
About the ride
The 2007 Equality Ride is a two-month journey by bus that is taking 50 young adults on two distinct routes to schools that actively discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Mississippi College is a private Christian college located in Clinton, Miss. Their student handbook includes “homosexual activities” in a list of improprieties subject to disciplinary sanctions.