PHILADELPHIA — A city judge yesterday dismissed all charges against four members of a conservative Christian group who were arrested last fall while picketing a street festival for gays and lesbians.
Common Pleas Judge Pamela Dembe tossed the charges after watching a videotape of the events leading to the arrests.
She said that while the protesters' message that homosexuality is a sin clearly enraged the crowd, the tape showed that they didn't threaten anyone and didn't incite violence.
"We are one of the very few countries that protect unpopular speech. And that means that Nazis can March in Skokie, Illinois. ... That means that the Ku Klux Klan can march where they wish to," Dembe said. "We cannot stifle speech because we don't want to hear it, or we don't want to hear it now."
The demonstrators, affiliated with a group called Repent America, say their opposition to homosexuality is based on the Bible. They had faced a variety of charges, including felonies, for their protest last fall at the Outfest event in downtown Philadelphia.
Prosecutors had said the bullhorn-wielding activists, led by Repent America founder Michael Marcavage of Lansdowne, were trying to incite the crowd.
Police tried moving the group to several different spots within the festival area, but at each location they were surrounded by gay activists blowing whistles. Officers began making arrests when the group refused a directive to go to yet another spot. Police allowed Marcavage to preach through a bullhorn for several minutes before placing him in handcuffs.
Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich said prosecutors hadn't yet decided whether to appeal.
Marcavage had been charged with felony riot, criminal conspiracy and ethnic intimidation — Pennsylvania's version of a hate crime — and five misdemeanor counts including disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment.
He has been arrested, detained or cited by police around the country since founding Repent America in 2002, including at a demonstration against same-sex marriages in San Francisco and at a graphic anti-abortion protest in Connecticut.
"We're just thrilled that Judge Dembe again reminded us how valuable the First Amendment is," Marcavage said following the ruling. He said he was already planning another protest.
In an unrelated case, prosecutors in Delaware County yesterday dropped charges that Marcavage had disrupted a borough council meeting last year by denouncing homosexuality during a public comment session. Prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
Last month, Dembe overturned a lower court ruling that kept Marcavage from picketing gay-themed events in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia arrests had split gay-rights advocates. Some had felt that charging Marcavage with hate crimes was excessive.
Stacey Sobel, director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Rights, said she hoped the city would find a way for everyone to exercise their free-speech rights safely at future events.
Philadelphia Gay Pride, the group that organized Outfest, said the Repent America picketers came to the event with the intention of disrupting the festival, and said police acted appropriately.
After the decision in Philadelphia yesterday, supporters of the four ex-defendants unfurled a large banner on a public plaza across the street from the courthouse. It read, "Sodomy separates from God."
"He who defies Moses' law will be destroyed!" one speaker shouted through a bullhorn.