Patrons of Lucille's, a gay bar in Johnstown, say they have a plan to stop the anti-gay demonstrations that began in early July: bore the protesters to death.
The pickets are the work of Ron McRae, head of the Somerset County-based Worldwide Street Preachers Fellowship. McRae first drew local attention for a nearly four-year weekly protest that shut down the Casa Nova gay bar in Jennerstown, near Somerset, in 2001. Most recently, his complaints about the crescent-shaped memorial to Flight 93 in Shanksville ... that it was allegedly meant to honor Islam ... drew national attention and prompted changes in the design of this 9/11 commemoration.
"At all costs, we're trying to keep my patrons away from them," says Tom Schnur, Lucille's owner. The protests are easily monitored from television cameras mounted on his building, he reports.
The pickets began the first weekend in July, and have taken place on Friday or Saturday nights. There have been at least seven so far, and McRae has attended most, along with four to 10 other protesters. McRae did not respond to a request for comment.
"Some of the women [patrons] are very upset ... [picketers] call them hogs," Schnur says. And the preachers' group has targeted one slim male patron with, "Hey, skinny boy, do you have AIDS?" he adds. They've also brandished a sign reading "Sodomites, burn in hell."
The loud sidewalk exhortations of the self-styled Anabaptist bishop and other Fellowship members have been followed by arrest in many places, from the Indianapolis 500 to Johnstown's Central Park. But the preachers often win subsequent lawsuits on First Amendment grounds, or because courts reject the noise and trespassing ordinances under which they are arrested as being too broad.
According to Harrisburg's Patriot-News, McRae won his latest suit in July after his arrest at last year's gay PrideFest there. On Aug 15, Ohio media reported a large police contingent was necessary to keep Fellowship preachers separated from a Catholic procession to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation during the Feast of the Assumption, in Carey; 20 preachers clashed with 200 marchers last year, resulting in arrests and injuries.
But while Fellowship preaching has targeted Catholics, Mormons, pagans, and Mardi Gras attendees, gays have drawn the most consistent ire.
"First night, we called police a couple of times," says Schnur, who experienced the Casa Nova protests as a customer. He says Johnstown officers stopped protesters' use of a bullhorn and moved them across the three-lane road on which Lucille's sits. The Johnstown police department did not respond to a request for comment.
Bar patrons have contacted the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to look into filing ethnic intimidation complaints about the protests; sexual orientation was added as a permitted factor in hate-crime charges since the Casa Nova was shuttered. But no complaints have yet been filed.
What prompted the pickets remains a puzzle, since Lucille's is 17 years old; Schnur has owned it since 2001. He speculates that it might have been the rainbow and leather flags Lucille's began flying in the last weekend in June, in celebration of Thunder in the Valley, the local gathering of 100,000 bikers in which some Lucille's patrons participate (and which McRae was protesting as well). Or it might be the rumored opening of a second gay bar somewhere in Johnstown.
So far, Schnur hasn't been targeted personally, as the Casa Nova's owners were. "I still don't think they know who I am," he says. "We're just thinking out of sight, out of mind."