A gay rights group is using the Freedom Riders of the civil rights era as a model to promote a different kind of equality.
The group -- with about 60 students from colleges throughout Virginia -- went to Liberty University Monday as the first stop on a protest tour of religious and military colleges where gay students would face punishments for revealing their orientations. The Equality Ride will take place next year, but will follow the pattern of Monday's events.
The students visited the university and spoke informally with Liberty students. But according to organizers, they were turned away from the library when they tried to donate books about gay people. The organizers were also unable to turn over to Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder and chancellor of the university, anonymous letters from current students at Liberty who are gay. Equality Ride published two of those letters on its Web site.
Don Egle, director of public relations at Liberty, said "we don't feel that this situation warrants a comment." Asked about the university's policies toward gay students, he said only "we follow Scripture."
Local television stations reported that Falwell told students at their morning convocation, "This is not gay day."
Jake Reitan, one of the organizers of Equality Ride, said that the idea was to focus on religious and military colleges where gay students cannot speak out for themselves. Reitan, who is director of youth programs for Soul Force, a gay rights group, said that the colleges to be visited will be announced later. But Equality Ride provides a list of policies at religious and military colleges where gay students can face punishments for their sexuality.
In the visits to colleges, he said, Equality Ride plans to stress the issue of academic freedom.
"If a professor here wanted to say that God really loves gay students, he would get in trouble," Reitan said about Liberty. "If a student told a professor he was gay, he would be reported and urged to attend ex-gay programs," where people are told that they can change their sexual orientation.
Reitan said that the requests the group wanted to make of Liberty were minimal: Accepting books that could be added to the library "that students could decide to read or not," and designating some place on campus where students could talk about being gay without fear of being expelled or having their parents informed.
The campaign comes at a time that many religious colleges are facing demands that they recognize gay groups -- and also demands from religious denominations that they not do so.
Reitan said that the issue is not going away. "This was the first run. We're going to be at a lot more colleges."