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Organize Locally, Annoy Globally

Fundamentalist street preachers who shut down a Somerset-area gay bar in 2001 are now multiplying, boasting of arrests across the country

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"It's the first time that we had protestors," says Fanny Price, who directed Philadelphia's largest gay pride event, Outfest, Oct. 10-12. "We experienced them in full, and they were there all day. They dress like Mennonites and they hold the Bible up. They had their signs: 'God Hates Fags' and "Got AIDS Yet?'"

Just three days after Outfest, some of the same protestors - members of the recently organized Street Preachers' Fellowship, headquartered in nearby Johnstown - filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Indianapolis, asking for damages following an arrest and jailing this spring for preaching loudly on the sidewalk during the Indy 500 parade. And just a month ago, Street Preachers' Fellowship Assistant Director Jim Grove was found not guilty of disorderly conduct after an arrest for preaching in that city. The group also boasts of recent arrests of its leaders and members at Arkansas State University in Beebe, Ark., the University of Louisiana at New Orleans and in downtown Dundee, Mich.

The group, founded and directed by Ronald M. McRae, 49, a former Fort Worth, Texas, policeman and self-styled Anabaptist bishop, claims membership in most states and a few foreign countries. McRae himself has been arrested for disorderly conduct in several states while preaching or protesting Catholics and anyone else deemed sinners in his theology. Acting as his own lawyer until recently, he's made sure none of the charges resulted in convictions.

McRae and the group's membership director - McRae's long-time associate Daniel Gowan - led protests of a Somerset-area gay bar, the Casa Nova, for nearly four years until the owners closed under the pressure. Their new Street Preachers' Fellowship, complete with extensive Web site (www.streetpreachersfellowship.com), held its first convention this summer in Salt Lake City, which gave members a chance to picket a semi-annual convention of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints - the Mormons.

Photographs on a church Web site of the April gathering show some preachers in the same sort of faux-Amish garb favored by McRae and Gowan, although others wear T-shirts with messages such as "God loves me ... but I'm worried about you." One preacher's sign offers a "Warning to all pagans, witches, unbelievers, atheists, rebel women, liars, pew warmers, New Agers, false religions, Jehovah's Witnesses, evolutionists, baby killers, sodomites, drunkards, child molesters and Mormons ..."

McRae told the church-owned Deseret Morning News. "We're not a bunch of kooks." Their plans to preach to infidels attending a Bon Jovi conference that same April weekend proved "We're not down there to target the Mormon church."

Neither McRae nor other Fellowship leaders and members responded to requests for interviews.

Perhaps Philly's Outfest should have known the street preachers were descending this month. The Fellowship's lawyer, Leonard G. Brown, III, of Clymer & Musser, with offices in Lancaster and Harrisburg, sent out a press release on Oct. 8, "advising" the City of Philadelphia to "protect their First Amendment rights ... While the homosexuals bill the event as a day of 'networking, socializing, and plain-old fun in the heart of Philadelphia's gay scene,' and a 'history making' day as a large rainbow flag is unfurled, the Street Preachers' Fellowship see the opportunity as one to highlight cultural sin in America and declare the Biblical truth that homosexuals can leave their destructive lifestyles." In a letter to the mayor, Brown described the impending preachers' protest as "peaceful and orderly ... celebrating God's Law and the freedoms granted to all citizens of these United States ..." One of Brown's law partners sent a similar letter to Salt Lake City.

Witnesses of all stripes - people living thousands of miles away from each other, even those who would not normally find themselves in the same ideological room - say McRae, Gowan and associates are employing the same message that pushed the Casa Nova out of business: You're going to hell. And by all accounts, their in-your-face methods are riling more people than ever.

 

On Oct. 5-6, large, heavily bearded Dan Gowan stood among a stream of Latter-day Saints attending the Utah church's twice-yearly conference. He held a large yellow arrow pointing at the church's holiest sites; it said simply "Cult." Church member Allen Wyatt of Mesa. Ariz., saw half-a-dozen or more street preachers (including some in the Fellowship) wearing and desecrating white undergarments only church members should normally possess - and then only under their clothing, as a sign of a church covenant. Wyatt compares the garments to the Jewish yarmulke, or Catholic vestments. Preacher Devin Allen, says Wyatt, "took the garments and he blew his nose with them and he wiped his backside with them" - happily, outside his clothes.

"I've been watching them in action for the last two years," Wyatt says. "Each time they're getting a little bit more confrontational. They tend to taunt. They try to call people out so they can get them into arguments about the Bible." Most recently, he watched another SPF Assistant Director, Reuben Israel, toss down the Book of Mormon on a string, challenging passersby to retrieve their holiest book. Utah SPF Director Lonnie Pursifull is a Salt Lake City perennial, according to many local news reports. And Kevin Deegan - a preachers' group member threatened with arrest in Indianapolis, who is party to the lawsuit there -- is such a fixture in Utah that Wyatt and others had e-mail addresses for him.

The taunting is starting to have an effect. Two Mormon Church members were arrested for snatching the white garments from preachers.

"In talking with Lonnie Pursifull," Wyatt says, "he indicated that next conference, in April [2004], at least one of [the preachers] would be coming decked out in full temple garments. I suspect that there will be other confrontations because of it. Which is a real shame."

Thomas Grover, a church member from Logan, Utah, who has observed the preachers even longer than Wyatt, says "It's escalated over the last five [conferences]. It gets more dramatic every time. If they scream at me, that's fine, but they scream at little kids - big burly men with bullhorns. It's like a gauntlet," lining the only entrance to the conference, which is attended by thousands of the faithful. "Years ago at general conference they used to have more mild preachers [protesting]. These guys have driven those guys away."

Preachers group Director Ron McRae was in negotiation with the Utah ACLU this year to join a long-running suit over free-speech rights on church-controlled property in the city, according to executive director of the ACLU in Utah, Dani Eyer. "They insisted on being the lead plaintiffs," she says of McRae's group - and would not trade cooperation for the ACLU's free legal counsel. Eyer adds: "The other hesitancy we had: Even though we were able to work with Ron, the representatives here in Utah are kind of loose cannons and difficult to work with." She says Ron McRae seemed the most reasonable of the bunch. She termed the street preachers "obnoxious" and "not your average demonstrator, but that's what free speech is about."

Pursifull also informed the Deseret Morning News what free speech was about. The preachers' October protests and the subsequent arrests had forced local mainstream pastors to come out publicly in support of the church that dominates Salt Lake City. These mainstream church pastors, Pursifull said, "have sold out. They go around with their sugar-coated method. Sometimes our message is a little harsh. But if anything, we'll heat it up next time."

 

Although Fellowship lawyer Leonard Brown says the group is not trying to get arrested while preaching at large gatherings - such arrests leave cities and event organizers open to potentially expensive lawsuits - the group's homepage takes evident pride in legal confrontations: "For almost 30 years now, and after over 63 arrests in three different countries for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in the open air ..." the group's introduction begins, signed by McRae.

The page also features a photograph of McRae's son Stephen, 21 - often his companion outside the Casa Nova -- in the iconic pose of the Fellowship evangelist: Bible in the air. Dan Gowan (sometimes spelled Gowen, even in legal papers), is listed as the group's membership director. McRae claims their calling is, "without exception, the most controversial aspect of the New Testament gospel ministration." Street ministry is not just preaching the gospel, he writes; it takes people "who have the courage and character to warn a wicked world of the penalty and judgment of sin." Ordinary pastors he accuses of "ecclesiastical effeminacy." Compromising with the desires of men is seen as "sin and weakness," according to the Fellowship's "Doctrinal Statement." Street preachers are engaged in "conflict" that will only grow worse, he concludes. And the site is filled with relevant quotes from the bible - and from court cases.

McRae set the legal precedent for safe-street preaching in Pennsylvania, opines Brown. Acting as his own attorney in state Superior Court in June, 1990, McRae succeeded in getting his disorderly conduct charge, and that of Dan Gowan, dismissed, following their Nov. 2, 1987 arrest in Johnstown's Central Park. They had allegedly refused a police officer's order to lower their voices when preaching. While the preachers did not prove their claims that the city's ordinance against noise was "overbroad" and that they were denied a fair trial, their First Amendment rights trumped all else, the judges found. Their preaching was not "unreasonable noise."

McRae still apparently expects trouble. The Fellowship's Web site offers instructions "on dealing with the police," for which McRae's former career as a police officer (including a 1976 stint in the Fort Worth Special Enforcement Unit) must have been quite a help. There, ranting is advised against. The 12-point guide is detailed enough to teach any street protestor a thing or two. Point 4: "Always stand facing the officer, and slightly away from his gun side ... Always remain relaxed, and stand just within his reach (he will keep that distance if you do not). They are taught to keep just within reach of a person, but far enough away to execute an elbow defensive block."

 

Indianapolis police didn't need an elbow block to arrest McRae, his son Stephen, Dan Gowan (all of whom live between Somerset and Johnstown) and SPF member Bruce Perrault (of New York) at the Indy 500 parade on May 24. But both sides agree on little else.

In the suit, the police are depicted as inflaming the situation and the preachers as compliant victims, putting away their banners and tracts when told by an officer that the parade committee "own[s] that parade route lock stock and barrel [sic] ..." Trying to preach there was like "coming into somebody's house," one officer allegedly told preachers. "You don't have freedom of speech in somebody's house." The suit contends that other groups were handing out literature while Fellowship members were prevented from doing the same. Officer Mark Rand (who, like all city police being sued, was unavailable for comment) allegedly told McRae, "If you say the name of Jesus Christ again on this sidewalk, I am going to arrest you and put you in jail." McRae's response: "The name of Jesus Christ is going to come out of my mouth until the day I die." The suit accuses Rand of saying to the crowd, in the course of arresting the preachers, that "Jesus Christ is a false prophet ... and the Old Testament is a book of lies ... based upon the Jewish religion." Another officer, the suit contends, apologized to McRae for "just obeying orders."

The suit also complains of rough treatment during the arrest, and a filthy jail, in which the preachers spent a dozen hours. The charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing traffic were later dropped for all before trial.

The police report paints a somewhat different picture of the events. It says the officers were all "given special instructions ... that no one could hold up any sort of sign, give any pass outs [leaflets] or could yell and preach while standing in one place." McRae and company were spotted doing just that, police contend. "It was exciting the crowd around them that was trying to enjoy the parade and the crowd began to get upset and offended at the gentlemen," the report says. Told to move, the preachers did not comply and were arrested.

Arresting Officer Rand subsequently wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Star in which he says he was "applauded and thanked by many people in the crowd who found [McRae's] religious hate-mongering speech offensive."

The suit asks Indianapolis for compensatory damages for the preachers' "unconstitutional imprisonment caused by the unconstitutional arrests and the costs incurred and loss of work ..."

"Plaintiffs," the lawsuit concludes, "are chilled, frustrated, and deterred in their exercise in First Amendment activities due to the city's policy ..."

Really? Given the lengths these preachers are apparently willing to go to put their message in people's faces?

Yes, says their lawyer, Leonard Brown: "It will have a chilling effect on the group. It might not have a chilling effect on Mr. McRae individually," he concedes. But, he adds: "They're going to have to go [to Indianapolis again] believing that they will be arrested. Until it gets straightened out that the city can't do that, the speech will be chilled."

Brown doesn't believe McRae and company were trying to preach to any particular group of Indy sinners. Could their preaching be classified as hate speech, as Officer Rand deemed it in his letter? "Definitely not," Brown says. "This was more a general repeal to repentance. They put away their banners. They even put away their tracts," which Indy, constitutionally, should not have made them do, he adds - particularly on a day when many other groups were hawking wares to the crowd via leaflet.

Indy police spokesman Sgt. Steve Staletovich sees the arrests differently. Jailing the preachers for disorderly conduct was proper, he says, since they were interfering with "people's rights to enjoy a parade they had purchased tickets for. Officers very politely asked them to move on ... They decided that they weren't going to do that and they were arrested."

Staletovich doesn't know what the preachers might have been preaching. "I just know it was loud and they were standing in one spot doing that. To say a couple of police officers stood up and said 'God is bad' is just ridiculous. The officers were doing their job, protecting everyone's rights."

 

The City of Indianapolis has not yet contacted Brown to negotiate any settlement, but Brown says he is prepared for a trial. Damages in such cases range from $10,000 to $200,000, he estimates. "It all depends on what somebody [a jury] thinks the right to speak is worth," Brown says.

Damages of any other sort are harder to assess. Pastor Mike Imperiale, of First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, says street preachers, including some Fellowship members, picketed his annual Procession of the Cross march last Good Friday, which includes many other local churches.

"They were at different corners, dogging us, screaming," says Imperiale. "It was unbelievable. The signs that I have seen would say things like, 'Read the Bible.' No problem with that. It's their speech, and their manner of speech, which is offensive. They're just heavy on the judgment and hell message, but their language is kind of brutal. They curse. They use four-letter words, other demeaning language toward people. If you're just covering the fall and the nature of sin and damnation, you're not preaching the gospel. If you're not covering the four-fold message of creation, fall, redemption and faith, you're not preaching."

Besides unfairly representing both Jesus and Christians, Imperiale charges, the street preachers do his own efforts at proselytizing Latter-day Saints a disservice. He agrees with the street preachers - some ideas of the state's most popular church are a bit outside "classical, Biblical, orthodox Christianity," he says. "We're here day after day, year after year, reaching out in love to Mormon folks. We have many folks in our congregation who have come out of LDS background, but that takes some time, some openness. When these people just show up and bash people it makes it more difficult for us."

In the end, Imperial says, "I don't think it's a First Amendment issue at all. The issue is more, are these folks representing the Christian message? They claim they are charged by God to rebuke error. I'm fine with that. But it also says in Scripture to do it with gentleness, with civility, with love and care. No one is won over into the Kingdom of God by being beaten up, verbally or otherwise."

Chilled or enflamed by recent arrests and court cases, these preachers do not seem likely to quit. Other news reports this fall place Fellowship members in New York City at the opening of Harvey Milk High School, created specifically for gay students, and in Jackson County, North Carolina, protesting a pagan gathering. Their literal interpretation of the bible even drew McRae and compatriots to the Florida execution of Paul Hill on Sept. 3. Hill had been convicted of killing a Pensacola abortion doctor and his bodyguard, but the preachers were there to shout that Hill was no martyr, and that there was no justification for Hill's action, according to the Ten Commandments.

Few of their targets have a clue how to counter the preachers. "I don't think that people's right to protest or march around and be stupid should be taken away," says Utah church member Wyatt. "I think the city needs to stop them when they enter the realm of hate speech. The parading around with sacred garments, the desecration ... to me is like trying to pick a fight. Something should be done about it."

Fanny Price, who led this month's Outfest gay pride event in Philly, said the preachers complied with requests not to block events. But Outfest found another way to handle the shouting interlopers, who numbered 8-20 at any one time. "We kept them moving," Price says, by employing what she calls "chain people" - participants asked to form an unmarked crowd to stop in a designated spot as if they could not move, just to keep the preachers behind them and away from someplace else.

"When they say, 'Read the Bible,'" concludes Pastor Imperiale, "I wish they would."

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