Soulforce preaches to the Navy

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- All the Rev. Mel White, Jacob Reitan and the rest of their Soulforce team wanted to do was talk to people. That was the good news. The bad news was that they wanted to talk about God, politics and homosexuality, although not necessarily in that order. It also didn't help that the people they wanted to talk to were midshipmen on the U.S. Naval Academy campus -- on a football-weekend Friday, no less.

"Free speech is free speech," said White, who, before going public as a gay activist, was a ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other evangelical leaders. White is one of the founders of Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va.

"If people don't want to talk, all they have to do is say so and walk away."

Soulforce activists drifted around the academy campus in small clusters last weekend, their bright pastel t-shirts standing out among the blue uniforms and gray Chesapeake Bay mists. They attracted packs of journalists.

The 40 or so protestors -- mostly college students from nearby -- offered this greeting: "We're here to talk about the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. What do you think about that?"

Most midshipmen declined to talk. Capt. Helen Dunn, deputy superintendent at the academy, had issued this memo: "Members of this group may attempt to gain access to the Yard and approach you for discussions. We ask that you carry out your normal routine, ... stay clear of our security personnel and the protestors, and to politely refer questions from media or the demonstrators to the Public Affairs Office."

These are tense days at America's military academies, which are emerging as bitter battlefields in church-state wars.

At the Air Force Academy, the hot issue is salvation. Evangelicals have been accused of going overboard as they interact with non-Christians and non-believers. Evangelical chaplains have even been attacked for delivering evangelistic messages in voluntary chapel services and other optional events. A circle of conservative lawmakers recently wrote to President Bush urging him to issue an executive order guaranteeing the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Right now, the hot issue at the Naval Academy is sexuality. Activists are trying to break what they believe is a faith-based chokehold on military policies affecting the careers and relationships of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-gendered persons.

At the Air Force Academy, it's hard to speak up in favor of conservative religious doctrines.

At the Naval Academy, it's hard to speak up in opposition to them.

In both cases, believers -- on left and right -- are trying to proclaim what they believe is true. They are trying to change hearts and minds through the power of words and public witness. The problem, of course, is that one person's free speech is another's evangelism, public protest or, heaven forbid, even proselytizing.

At some point, said White, government officials must realize that people have a right to dialogue and debate. People have the right to talk and the right not to listen.

"It's like all the people who want to censor television. You keep trying to tell people like that, 'Don't censor us. Just change the channel,' " he said, while greeting visitors outside the academy bookstore. "That's what this is all about, too. We just want to talk to people and let them know what we think. What's so scary about that?"

At first, Naval Academy officials threatened to have the demonstrators arrested if they came on campus. Then both sides agreed to a shaky compromise that allowed the activists the same rights as other visitors, other than the right to talk with midshipmen. Most members of the Soulforce team went right ahead and talked, said Reitan, leader of the group's "Equality Ride" program.

In the months ahead, Soulforce teams will be traveling to a dozen or more other campuses -- including the other military academies and an array of conservative religious colleges and universities from coast to coast.

"Hopefully, people at the campuses we stop at in the future will be willing to set up forums and create other kinds of settings in which we can discuss these issues in a more adult, academic manner," said Reitan. "But we have decided that we're not going to let our free speech to be edited during any of our future stops."