Backed by lawyers from the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund, a Michigan church is using a law pioneered by pro-choice activists to seek damages, legal fees and a federal injunction against demonstrators who disrupted a church service.
On Nov. 9, 2008, 10 members of Bash Back!, a Chicago-based national network of anarchist queers, snuck into a Sunday morning service at Mount Hope Church in Delta Township, Mich. As a group of protesters outside the church distracted security guards, those in the sanctuary began chanting, kissing and distributing fliers that called on young people to “try exploring and embracing these new feelings your mind and soul have chosen to engage in.”
The protest came at the end of a three-day Bash Back! gathering in Lansing, Mich. Bash Back! said in a statement that some of its members had attended Mount Hope as children, and the group wanted to “confront their demons” and “send a message of acceptance” to any queer youth in the 700-person congregation. Mount Hope was targeted, the group explained, for its “repulsive projects including organized ‘ex-gay’ conferences and so-called ‘hell houses,’ which depict queers, trannies and womyn who seek abortions in hell.”
Months of investigation by Eaton County Sheriff’s Department deputies yielded no criminal charges. The only inside protester identified by a witness was from out of state, and the participation of others could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. “If we get provable information as to who it was, it may cause us to reconsider,” Neil O’Brien, senior assistant Eaton County prosecuting attorney, told In These Times.
Although the criminal investigation appears to have stalled, Bash Back! is now faced with a civil lawsuit in federal court. On May 13, Mount Hope Church filed a complaint alleging the action “terrorized” church members. “The use of violent threats and criminal behavior to make a political point should never be acceptable in America,” Gary McCaleb, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a news release. The church referred all media inquiries to the fund, which declined to comment.
In addition to Bash Back! Lansing and the broader Bash Back! organization, the church is suing 14 named protesters from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin – most between the ages of 19 and 25 – and 20 John Does “involved in the advertising, planning, support, coordination and execution of the event.” According to the Bash Back! website, at least 23 people associated with the group have been served subpoenas. The church may try to compel them to testify about other activists, says Cynthia Heenan, a Detroit-based civil rights lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild.
“Being held in contempt and put in jail is the most extreme sanction that the court can hand out,” says Heenan, who is putting together a defense team.
The church is filing suit under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which protects abortion clinics from blockades. The complaint states that the loud protest inside the sanctuary “left Church members feeling terrified, reasonably fearing and being in apprehension of bodily harm to themselves and their families.” Those outside wore masks “calculated to ‘look scary’ ” and stood only five feet from church doors, leaving worshipers too frightened to enter or exit the building, the filing states.
Court papers paint Bash Back! as an extremist group. The complaint cites text and images from the Lansing chapter’s website that express support for violence, as well as a post on the national Bash Back! site about vandalism of a Mormon church in Olympia, Wash. The group’s Olympia chapter released a statement denying responsibility but adding it wanted to “celebrate [the action’s] success” and “encourage further actions of queer resistance everywhere.”
Attempts to contact defendants through lawyers were unsuccessful. Bash Back! activists are not speaking to the media.
Lane Fenrich, who teaches gay and lesbian history at Northwestern University, said the rhetoric of Bash Back! harks back to that of groups like Act Up and Queer Nation. An online photo shows group members dressed in masks and hijab-like head coverings, which many Americans associate with terrorists. “It’s a way of symbolically saying that this is a kind of war, it’s a kind of struggle … [and that efforts to change gays are] acts of violence,” says Fenrich.
Based on past lawsuits over clinic protests, the church appears to have a strong case under the FACE Act, says Douglas Laycock, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Courts have interpreted it pretty aggressively against the protesters,” Laycock says. To avoid making police play “umpire” between pro-life and pro-choice factions, judges have imposed broad restrictions on protesters, including distance rules (known as “bubbles”) and noise limits. In the Mount Hope Church complaint, even outside protesters’ dress and the content of the signs, which allegedly bore “symbols known to be associated with violence,” are at issue.
In recent years, LGBT activists have increasingly taken their protests to church grounds. If more churches file similar suits, this case could have far-reaching effects.
“I think it’s great queer people are realizing that a lot of our oppression is connected to religious fundamentalism,” says Jarrett Lucas, 23, the director of outreach for the young adult division of Soulforce, a group that since 1998 has sent LGBT activists to churches and religious universities in an effort to create dialogue. Some have been arrested while attempting to attend services, however.
But even if more churches begin suing protesters, Lucas says activists won’t change their tactics. “Just because the consequence may potentially become greater doesn’t mean we will compromise our integrity.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.