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Activists' journey for gay rights takes a college tour

In a few days, a group of college activists from around the nation will embark on a journey to more than two dozen Christian colleges and military academies in what has been billed as the Equality Ride.

The action is patterned after the Freedom Rides of the civil rights era.

"Like the Freedom Rides of the '50s and '60s, the Equality Ride is a student-led effort that takes young adults into epicenters of intolerance and oppression to make a better tomorrow," reads a statement on the Web site of Soulforce Inc., a civil rights organization for the gay community.

A St. Petersburg man will travel as an adult supporter and logistics coordinator on the two-month bus ride. For Bill Carpenter, 53, this type of effort is nothing new. First as a volunteer and then as an employee of Soulforce, he has protested at various church conventions and made a stand at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.

This time he is embarking on a trip that will take him and 35 young people to Falwell's Liberty University and other educational institutions, including Brigham Young University, West Point and Oral Roberts University.

The group will meet Sunday in Washington, D.C., for five days of training for the effort, which will focus on nonviolent methods of spreading their message.

"The basic strategy is to have a variety of presentations to offer in different scenarios," said Carpenter, who lives in St. Petersburg.

He added that the group might be able to talk to students in classrooms, during religious classes and at other venues.

Some institutions will not be welcoming.

In response to an interview, Liberty University issued a statement from Falwell that said the university welcomes visitors at appropriate times.

"However, we will not give permission to Soulforce to return to Liberty University as a media demonstration," Falwell said. "Neither will we permit them to espouse opinions or otherwise suggest beliefs or lifestyles that are in opposition to the morals and values that this institution promotes, either by private conversation, public oration, distribution of literature or any other communication while conducting a staged demonstration disguised as a visit to our campus."

Brigham Young also will not "accommodate" Equality Ride.

"This is just the Brigham Young University policy that we cannot accommodate outside groups who wish to use our university as a public forum," said Carri Jenkins, a university spokeswoman.

Participants will not be deterred, said Jake Reitan, 24, a Northwestern University graduate who helped organize the event.

"Our message is too important to stay away," he said by telephone from Minnesota.

"We have to go despite the fact that we know that there are risks attached. . . . Religion should not be about exclusion and oppression and fear. It should be about inclusion and love and understanding. There's really a good part of evangelical America that is working hard to take away the rights of gay and lesbian people."

Reitan, who works full time for Soulforce, said he has always wanted to see more youth activism in the gay rights movement. He recruited riders by sending e-mails to gay and lesbian college organizations and churches that welcome gays.

Taking part in the ride is a sacrifice for many participants, Carpenter said. "Most of these young people are in college, but have chosen to take the semester off," he said, adding that some are getting credit for the project.

Kayla Bonewell, a seminary student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., has chosen to graduate a year later because of the ride. She is participating on behalf of all the gay and lesbian students who have been persecuted and suffered, said Bonewell, who is studying to be a United Church of Christ minister.

"It's really for these people that I want to go on the Equality Ride, to show them that number one, you're not alone, and two, that there's nothing wrong with you, you're beautiful and created by God and holy," she said in a telephone interview.

Haven Herrin, 24, a graduate of the University of Richmond, is co-director of the ride.

"The response has been amazing," she said.

"When I tell people I'm going to Brigham Young University and to West Point, they say they're not even going to let you on campus, let alone have discussions and programs. We've told the schools we're coming, regardless. Over half the schools have worked with us in creating these well-crafted days."

The group will distribute printed material and give presentations that explain "what the Bible does and doesn't say about homosexuality," she said.

"We are preparing all the riders with a lot of information about the Bible."

Robert C. Andringa, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an organization of 105 institutions, said in a statement that most member institutions are owned and operated by orthodox denominations and "will not agree that homosexual practice is consistent with Scripture."

However, he added, "Our campuses are educational institutions and we hope that Equality Ride participants will experience good dialogue, even on areas of disagreement. We also hope that our campuses will be safe and encouraging places as students work through issues of sexual identity."