July 20 2011 12:00 AM

A case involving a 2008 protest by ‘radical queer’ activists at a Delta Township church comes to an end


Gay rights activists who gained national
attention when they disrupted Sunday morning services at Mount Hope
Church in 2008 have reached an agreement that has ended the church’s
suit against them.

The agreement bans 13 of the protesters from entering the church, 202 S. Creyts Road in Delta Township, without permission and  requires them to pay a total of $2,750 in damages. The church is also known as the Church of the Flags.

The agreement also blocks the 13
protesters from conducting similar demonstrations at any other church.
One of the defendants said the agreement is “not terrible” and that he’s
“feeling OK” about it because of the relatively inexpensive damages and
the agreement’s First Amendment protections.

“We went ahead and agreed to that, which
is actually not terrible,” said the defendant, Andy Field, former
president of the Lansing chapter of Bash Back!, which staged the
demonstration. “We (the 13 individuals) agreed to not go on the property
of Mount Hope Church or any of its facilities.

“Another reason we agreed is that this is just an injunction on certain individuals and not everyone,” he said.

The defendants besides Field are: Anton
Bollen, Wendie Debnar, Spencer Dilday, Nathan Keller, Melissa Kim,
Samuel Kreuger, Ryan Levitt, Cailin Major, Devin Merget, Kelsey Myking,
Ryan Pennings and Tyler Troutman.

Three other defendants were dismissed entirely from the
suit, according to Mark Sniderman, an attorney for Bash Back! They are
Daniel Regenscheit, Gina Wertz and Kristy Bousquet, he said.

Bash Back! targeted Mount Hope Church
because of its homophobic teachings and their effect on young people in
the congregation, some of the protesters said at the time.

The original suit filed by Mount Hope
Church alleged the protesters and Bash Back! violated the federal
Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrances Act. The act largely addresses
access to abortion clinics. Field said if it had gone to trial and Bash
Back! eventually lost, it could have blocked future protests at

“It would have legitimized Mount Hope
saying we broke the law. We were really concerned that losing in court
was going to make it harder for people to protest on a national level,”
Field said.

A separate default judgment was issued
against Bash Back! nationally and its Lansing chapter because the groups
did not submit contact information for the court. However, this is
because Bash Back! — in Lansing and nationally — no longer exists.
“There is no Bash Back! anymore,” Field said, citing “internal

Dale Schowengerdt, an attorney for the
Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which represented the church, could
not be reached for comment. A church spokeswoman directed questions to
the defense fund, a conservative Christian firm.

The defense fund’s website says it’s
“dedicated to preserving and reclaiming religious freedom” with “when
necessary, direct litigation through our in-house team of
Christ-centered attorneys.”

The permanent injunction issued by U.S.
Federal District Court Judge Robert Holmes Bell on July 11 in a Western
District court in Grand Rapids includes seven provisions that prevents
those 13 from the entering the church without permission by banning them
from: “disrupting a religious service anywhere in the United States by
shouting, yelling, throwing objects, unfurling a banner or displaying
any other sign not approved by the church, or by otherwise causing a
disturbance;” “conducting a protest on the private property of any place
of worship in the United States;” “blocking, impeding, or making
unreasonably difficult ingress or egress to entrances and/or exits of
any place of worship in the Unites States;” “destroying property at any
place of worship in the United States;” and $2,750 in damages.

The agreement also states: “The
Defendants shall retain their right to engage in lawful First Amendment
speech in a public forum.”

Sniderman, an Indianapolis-based attorney
who took on the case last fall after Bash Back!’s former attorney,
Tracie Dominique Palmer, left the case for a job in the court system,
said the agreement was “months in the works.”

“My clients were engaged in activity that
was protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “I think we were right
on the facts and right on the law but going to trial is a risky
proposition. If we had lost it would have been disastrous consequences.
Given the costs and uncertainty with trial, this was a good outcome.”

Sniderman said most of the provisions of
the injunction are “illegal anyway” and that retaining the right to
“engage in lawful First Amendment speech in a public forum” is “an
important one.”

On Nov. 9, 2008, a City Pulse reporter
accompanied protesters to the church but did not enter. Once the 11:30
a.m. service began, some protesters interrupted the service while others
held signs outside. The Rev. John Elieff of Mount Hope said at the time
that protesters threw fliers, hung a banner from the balcony and pulled
a fire alarm. The event received national coverage plus a segment on
Bill O’Reilly’s  Fox News TV show “The O‘Reilly Factor.”

Field said the potential legal expenses
and defense fund’s pursuit of e-mail records started adding up. (City
Pulse e-mails were also subpoenaed. The paper fought their release until
a federal magistrate ordered them to be turned over to him. The
magistrate sealed the e-mails but gave the church those that he thought
were relevant to the case. The district in which the case was heard does
not recognize a privilege allowing the media to protect information
from disclosure. Moreover, confidential information from sources was not
at risk in the case, Berl Schwartz, editor and publisher of City Pulse,

“It was getting so outrageous that it
just made more sense to go ahead and settle as quickly as possible,”
Field said. “Of course we went into it expecting to win but it became
too big of a situation. They had too much money. It’s hard to go up
against millionaires.” 

Field said his days of protesting and organizing for gay and transgender rights are far from over.

“I’m sure there’s plenty of chances for me to exercise my First Amendment rights in the future,” he said.