Backed by lawyers from the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund, a
On Nov. 9, 2008, 10 members of Bash Back!, a Chicago-based national network of anarchist queers, snuck into a Sunday morning service at Mount Hope Church in Delta Township, Mich. As a group of protesters outside the church distracted security guards, those in the sanctuary began chanting, kissing and distributing fliers that called on young people to "try exploring and embracing these new feelings your mind and soul have chosen to engage in."
The protest came at the end of a three-day Bash Back! gathering in
Months of investigation by Eaton County Sheriff’s Department deputies yielded no criminal charges. The only inside protester identified by a witness was from out of state, and the participation of others could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. "If we get provable information as to who it was, it may cause us to reconsider," Neil O’Brien, senior assistant
Although the criminal investigation appears to have stalled, Bash Back! is now faced with a civil lawsuit in federal court. On May 13, Mount Hope Church filed a complaint alleging the action "terrorized" church members. "The use of violent threats and criminal behavior to make a political point should never be acceptable in
In addition to Bash Back! Lansing and the broader Bash Back! organization, the church is suing 14 named protesters from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin—most between the ages of 19 and 25—and 20 John Does "involved in the advertising, planning, support, coordination and execution of the event." According to the Bash Back! website, at least 23 people associated with the group have been served subpoenas. The church may try to compel them to testify about other activists, says Cynthia Heenan, a Detroit-based civil rights lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild.
"Being held in contempt and put in jail is the most extreme sanction that the court can hand out," says Heenan, who is putting together a defense team.
The church is filing suit under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which protects abortion clinics from blockades. The complaint states that the loud protest inside the sanctuary "left Church members feeling terrified, reasonably fearing and being in apprehension of bodily harm to themselves and their families." Those outside wore masks "calculated to ‘look scary’ " and stood only five feet from church doors, leaving worshipers too frightened to enter or exit the building, the filing states.
Court papers paint Bash Back! as an extremist group. The complaint cites text and images from the
Attempts to contact defendants through lawyers were unsuccessful. Bash Back! activists are not speaking to the media.
Lane Fenrich, who teaches gay and lesbian history at
Based on past lawsuits over clinic protests, the church appears to have a strong case under the FACE Act, says Douglas Laycock, a constitutional law professor at the
In recent years, LGBT activists have increasingly taken their protests to church grounds. If more churches file similar suits, this case could have far-reaching effects.
"I think it’s great queer people are realizing that a lot of our oppression is connected to religious fundamentalism," says Jarrett Lucas, 23, the director of outreach for the young adult division of Soulforce, a group that since 1998 has sent LGBT activists to churches and religious universities in an effort to create dialogue. Some have been arrested while attempting to attend services, however.
But even if more churches begin suing protesters, Lucas says activists won’t change their tactics. "Just because the consequence may potentially become greater doesn’t mean we will compromise our integrity."