In-your-face evangelist challenges hate-crime law's limits

Pittsburgh Post Gazette/January 23, 2005
By Bill Toland

You have two options when you first visit the Internet home of Repent America, the Christian fundamentalist group created by 25-year-old Michael Marcavage of suburban Philadelphia.

You can click on the icon that says "Christians, enter here." Or you can visit the page reserved for "all others," which grimly reminds you that you're not only a heathen, but also a sinner who is most probably going to burn in hell unless you shape up soon.

Marcavage's fire-and-brimstone, us-against-them approach to Christian ministry isn't just anonymous Internet bluster. He's taken his 3-year-old group on the road, and his mission from God, he says, is to "go out to where the sinners are."

In his eyes, that means visiting gay-friendly events, with a bullhorn in one hand and a Bible in the other, and he often finds himself being handcuffed for his efforts.

"It's not something that's commonly done in the church today," Marcavage said last week. "But we're not the first people to try open-air evangelism."

He's been the subject of more lawsuits and dustups than there are beads on a rosary, in the words of one Philadelphia journalist. Typically, his behavior makes local news and is the subject of Web debate, but his most recent arrest has piqued interest among the nation's chattering class, partly because the Philadelphia district attorney's office is taking a novel approach to prosecuting Marcavage -- the office is essentially charging him with a hate crime.

In so doing, the DA argues that preaching the Bible can be unlawfully intimidating, if your brand of evangelism is a confrontational one.

On Friday, Marcavage and his attorneys were in Common Pleas Court to fight a previous judge's ruling, which said that as a condition of bail, Marcavage must stay 100 feet away from any "homosexual event" in the United States. The curious buffer zone order was overturned by Judge Pamela Dembe, which means Marcavage is free to preach at future gay events, and not run the risk of returning to jail.

It was the right decision, said Ted Hoppe, of Shields and Hoppe, the firm representing Repent America in the criminal case.

"We were frankly taken quite aback" by the order, Hoppe said. "We've never heard of it used in a situation like this."

That bail provision was just one element of a larger case, which gathers issues of free speech, religious expression, assembly rights and ethnic intimidation under one big legal tent.

"They're saying that publicly speaking against homosexuality is the evidentiary basis for a hate crime," Marcavage said.

He, of course, disagrees.

In the fall, Philadelphia police charged Marcavage with various misdemeanors, as well as felony counts of riot, criminal conspiracy, and -- most controversially -- "ethnic" intimidation, Pennsylvania's version of a hate crime. Homosexuals, as of 2002, are given protection under the state's Ethnic Intimidation Act.

Marcavage is the only Repent America defendant charged with ethnic intimidation. Three friends are still being prosecuted for other offenses. A fifth defendant, a girl, may be tried in juvenile court. They could, in toto, spend decades in jail, but probation is a better bet, if the case ever reaches the sentencing stage. At a Feb. 17 hearing, a judge will consider whether to throw the charges out entirely.

On the Web, supporters are calling them the "Philadelphia Five." At the outset, 11 members of Repent America were arrested, but six saw charges dropped.

Those charges stem from Marcavage's trip to OutFest, an annual October party at which Philadelphia-area gays are encouraged to come out of the closet. Marcavage's group called the downtown gathering a "sin celebration," and tried to convince homosexuals that they were bound for eternal damnation. To illustrate, they carried homemade signs that bore pictorial depictions of the flames of hell.

Marcavage and friends, generally mild-mannered throughout the Oct. 10 demonstration, were surrounded by a group known as the Pink Angels, who held tall, pink banners made of attic insulation to block Repent America's signs. Marcavage, speaking to both police officials and a trailing videographer, then futilely suggested the Pink Angels were not only violating God's law, but also city law, because they were obstructing a public sidewalk.

Police arrested Marcavage and the 10 others after they refused police suggestions to vamoose. Marcavage's followers have now taken to calling themselves the "Christian Rodney Kings," despite the notable lack of nightstick beatings given to that Los Angeles motorist. None of the Pink Angels, or anyone else with OutFest, was arrested.

"Philadelphia police," Marcavage declares on his Web site, are "under the control of homosexuals."

Had Marcavage crossed the line that day? Supporters note Repent America was on public property, attending a publicly funded festival (OutFest gets tens of thousands from the city), and simply speaking its mind, in a nonviolent way. Critics say he was antagonizing for the sake of antagonizing, crashing a party when he wasn't invited, creating a fuss not in God's name, but to get his own name in the papers, which in turn draws donors.

That makes him a "professional Christian," who is otherwise unemployed, said Franny Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents, the group that organizes OutFest. "Jesus doesn't come in there with a bullhorn," she said. "When you're up in our face, and they're calling us slurs and names, that's not the First Amendment, that's causing trouble. We had seven other churches there that day, none of them were arrested."

Since the Bill of Rights was first put to paper, there has been a fine line between what's free expression and what's not. You're free to speak your mind in public, but not free to intimidate somebody because their race or religion is different than yours. You can peaceably assemble in a public space -- and Center City Philadelphia is indeed a public space -- but if you fail to disperse when asked to do so by police, you can still be arrested. You have the freedom to worship, but where does worship stop and provocation begin?

"We're not acting in an antagonistic way," Marcavage said. "It's the content of our message that [they find] offensive."

Marcavage, unmarried and without children, is the undisputed leader of Repent America, and the group is basically run over the Internet, via his basement. His group, with about a dozen core members, gets funding largely from private donors.

His mother died when Marcavage was 3, and his father raised him a Roman Catholic near Scranton. But Marcavage now shuns Catholicism. (Once, he confronted a group of Catholics praying to Mary in front of a courthouse, saying they were guilty of idolatry.)

Catholics, he now believes, are damned unless they are born again. He butts heads with his father, Anthony, as a result. He's not sure if his Catholic mother is in heaven or hell. "I never met her," he said quietly.

He says he was reintroduced to Christianity when he began reading the Bible in high school. Marcavage eventually moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University, where in 1999 he was detained, and sent to a psychiatric hospital, after protesting a campus performance of "Corpus Christi," a play that features gay and effeminate characterizations of Jesus and his apostles.

Marcavage wanted to stage an event that offered an opposite viewpoint. Temple turned down his request, and court documents said Marcavage became so distraught during a meeting with a university vice president that Temple officials feared he might harm himself, according to The Associated Press.

That's a lie, Marcavage said. His state of mind was just fine, and he has since sued. That unexpected trip to the psychiatric ward, meanwhile, was an epiphany.

"It opened my eyes to the spiritual battle we fight," he said. "I was never aware of how aggressively the war was being waged against Christianity."

And so Marcavage is now on a high-profile collision course with the courts. His attorneys say this is the first time someone has been charged with a so-called "hate crime" for merely preaching the Bible.

The big legal question is, has the DA overreached on the ethnic intimidation charge?

To win a conviction under that Pennsylvania law, prosecutors must prove that Marcavage acted "with malicious intention toward the actual or perceived [religion, sexual orientation or gender identity] of another individual or group," and also committed a separate crime, such as arson, criminal mischief, trespass or harassment by communication.

So maybe it comes down to malicious intent.

Marcavage said he had none.

"I'm trying to save them," he said. "We're trying to let them know that homosexuality is a sin, and we want them to turn away from their sins."

Without malice, does the intimidation charge hold water?

"Look, we don't get into explaining why we filed the charges," said Cathie Abookire, a spokeswoman for DA Lynne Abraham. "But we filed them, and a judge held them over for trial. He did that for a reason."

If a judge or jury says the DA's office is reaching, it's a victory for Repent America and supporters who have been banging loudly the Bill of Rights drum. If there's a conviction, it's a victory for gay rights groups and others who are tired of being hassled.

And Marcavage? He's demonstrated an aversion to neither the court process nor media publicity. He wins in either event.

"God," he said, "is using us in a mighty way."

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