ROANOKE, Va. A nationwide bus tour to promote gay rights at conservative Christian colleges may get off to a rocky start Friday when it visits Liberty University, which has announced the activist group is not welcome on its Lynchburg campus.
Haven Herrin, co-director of Soulforce’s Equality Ride, said the 35 group members intend to go to Liberty’s campus anyway to promote an end to discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
Jacob Reitan, 24, of Eden Prairie is another organizer.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the university’s chancellor, characterized the visit as a fundraising ploy and said he would not permit his school to be used for a media demonstration.
Members of Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, were greeted with cookies when they met with Liberty students on campus last spring to discuss the treatment of gays. For Falwell, once was enough.
“The parents of our students have entrusted their sons and daughters to our care,” he said in a statement. “Liberty has an obligation to these parents not to expose their children to a “‘media circus’ that might present immorality in a positive light.”
University spokesmen would not say whether the activists would be arrested if they went onto the private college’s property for a rally. Up to 75 people are expected to join the group in Lynchburg, Herrin said.
Deputy Chief Greg Berry of the campus police on Wednesday would say only that his department was conferring with city police. Lynchburg police Capt. Brandon Zuidema said officers would be outside the school Friday.
Soulforce has been issued a permit to demonstrate on city property, which Zuidema said would be the sidewalk or street bordering the campus.
Soulforce’s goal is to meet with students to discuss freedom of expression, not to have a confrontation, Herrin said. Still, the group will not be turned away, she said.
“I’m actually very excited that this is our first stop,” Herrin, a 24-year-old from Dallas, said in a telephone interview. “We have to go to these places and start this dialogue.”
Soulforce, an interfaith group co-founded by former Falwell ghostwriter Mel White, has received letters from hundreds of students around the country supporting its tour, Herrin said.
“These students … have been told their whole lives “‘you can’t question your religion. If you are gay, you are sick and sinful,’” Herrin said.
The group, made up of young adults from around the country, has scheduled visits to 19 colleges and universities this month and next, including North Central University in Minneapolis and Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn.
Besides Christian schools, they will stop at the Air Force Academy and will wind up their bus tour at West Point on April 20.
Reaction by the schools has been mixed. Brigham Young University has told the group it was not welcome. But Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach has been receptive, Herrin said, and officials at Abilene Christian University offered to pay the group’s hotel bill for two nights.
“This exposes how a school really feels about the Christian values of tolerance and acceptance,” Herrin said.
Bethel officials have issued a statement saying the school planned to hold “courteous and honest” discussions with the Soulforce group.