National Tour of Christian Colleges Faces Harassment, Anti-gay Slurs in the Heartland

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The Equality Ride bus is defaced with anti-gay slurs in Iowa: Equality Riders are arrested at Notre Dame.

In the first two days of Equality Ride 2007, the 50 young Riders faced grim reminders of why they are on 2 buses, headed for 32 Christian colleges with policies that silence or exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Six Riders were arrested on Friday, March 9, for walking onto the University of Notre Dame campus in a show of support for gay and lesbian equality.

The Riders were joined by two Notre Dame students, Eddie Velazquez and a graduate Theology student who requested anonymity, as they walked two by two carrying flowered wreaths intended for a campus memorial to Tom Dooley, a gay alumnus of Notre Dame who served in silence as a doctor in the Navy. The Equality Ride's mission is to open a dialogue at Christian colleges about the painful consequences of discrimination and the religion-based prejudice that sustains it.

Previously, on March 8, Notre Dame campus police had issued trespass warnings to two Riders for speaking with students in the cafeteria. Those Riders were the first arrested Friday for misdemeanor criminal trespassing. The other four Soulforce participants were given written citations and then arrested on the same charges after attempting to continue their walk. Velazquez and the graduate student received an "official summons subject to immediate suspension" from campus officials. They were able to deliver one of the three wreaths to the Dooley memorial site.

"As a gay Catholic man who was once in seminary, I walked onto Notre Dame today to help make my church a universal church. I did as Jesus Christ did and went all the way for love," said Rider Delfin Bautista who helped organize the stop in South Bend.

The arrested include: Haven Herrin, Delfin Bautista, Jess Kalup, Kelsey Pacha, Dan Seda, and Mike Cramer. They were released within hours with a ticket to appear in court at a later date.

Notre Dame remains at the top of a list of least gay-friendly schools according to a Princeton Review survey of students at the college. AllianceND, an LGBT student group, has been denied official status as a student organization: Official student organizations may not be in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic church, which holds that homosexual orientation is "a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil."

Two days earlier, on March 7, the eastbound Equality Ride bus made its first stop in Sioux Center, Iowa. Riders were harassed at their hotel that evening and awoke on the morning of March 8 to find their bus defaced by graphic anti-gay graffiti.

The Equality Ride traveled to Sioux Center to visit Dordt College, a school whose student handbook identifies "sexual activity with someone of the same gender" as possible grounds for "an employee's discharge or a student's dismissal."

The bus full of young adults, including former students of conservative Christian colleges, straight allies and gay evangelical Christians, arrived in Sioux Center in the early evening. On the night of March 7th, three vehicles circled the hotel where the Equality Riders were staying, harassing the young adults who were staying inside. In the morning, anti-gay slurs were found written on the side of the bus, along with a hate-filled message on a piece of cardboard: "God does not love feary f****."

Last year, the Equality Ride received a similar welcome in Cleveland, TN. There community members wrote "fags-mobile" on the side of the bus. Katie Higgins, co-director of the Eastbound bus and a rider from last year commented, "This is the reality created by fear and misunderstanding. It saddens me that people have such hatred in their hearts, but this just demonstrates why we feel called to spread our message of the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings."

In spite of the harassment, the Equality Riders remained undeterred in their determination to bring a message of inclusion and academic freedom to Dordt College. They visited the college to have conversations with students about faith and sexual orientation. Many Riders spoke from personal experience about the pain of discrimination. During the visit, Dordt's President publicly apologized for the harassment that the Riders experienced in Sioux Center.

Both buses will continue their journey on March 12. The westbound bus will stop at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, Wisc. The school has agreed to a limited off-campus meeting but has yet to welcome the Soulforce Equality Ride for discussion of faith and gay and lesbian issues and may arrest Riders for walking on campus. The eastbound bus will visit Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo.

Soulforce Q is the young adult division of Soulforce, a social justice organization that works to end political and religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people. For more information, go to http://www.equalityride.com.

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PAIGE SCHILT