PROVO Brigham Young University police arrested 24 people, among them five current students, who participated Tuesday in a march and demonstration by a national gay-awareness group.
At the event, the group marched around the edge of campus and then staged a "die-in" on campus property near the university's main entrance, just past one of the university's icons the sign "Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve."
"I'm not advocating a gay lifestyle," said one of the arrested students, Lauren Jackson, a freshman from Baxter, Tenn. "I've known people who have come out to me and who have struggled within the church. An anti-Christ-like attitude exists among many church members."
The students could face disciplinary action under BYU's Honor Code if university officials judge the march, organized by the group Soulforce, as advocacy of a gay lifestyle, which is contrary to the teachings of BYU's owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jackson and her boyfriend, Alex Liberato, sought advice before the march from BYU Police Chief Larry Stott and the associate dean of student life, Jonathan Kau.
Stott told the students before the march that if arrested, they would be banned from campus for 72 hours, but he lifted the ban for three students at 10 p.m. Tuesday and said he'd meet with the other two early this morning to consider a similar action.
Jackson wrestled with the decision to be arrested because she had a quiz Tuesday afternoon and a test scheduled today.
The Honor Code Office reports to Kau, who told Jackson and Liberato they likely wouldn't face damaging sanctions.
"If you're actively advocating, as it says in the Honor Code, that might be a different matter," Kau added. "If you're asking if you're going to be expelled, I don't think so."
The marchers proceeded somberly and silently on a 42-minute walk past the LDS Missionary Training Center, the Marriott Center, Larry H. Miller Field and LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The procession ended at the campus entrance on the corner of Bulldog Boulevard and Canyon Road, where Soulforce conducted a rally to memorialize the deaths of 22 members of the LDS Church who committed suicide between 1965 and 2004.
Soulforce leaders read biographies of each of the gay men 11 served LDS church missions and six were former BYU students or graduates. The rally included memorials for two other gay men who had ties to Utah or the LDS Church.
Each marcher represented one of the dead men and carried a lily. The rally lasted more than an hour, with each marcher waiting until a biography was read before walking from the street corner up onto campus and collapsing on the grass as if dead.
"People are dying, and we can't ignore that any longer," said Haven Herrin, a Soulforce organizer. "We offer the lilies to the university in honor of those who have killed themselves. They couldn't reconcile their LDS faith and their sexual identity. We hope for a safer future."
Police officers knelt by the demonstrators, warning them they would be arrested, then telling them they were under arrest. The demonstrators all voluntarily walked to waiting vans and left without being handcuffed. Police took Soulforce members to their hotel at their request, and the students went with them to the hotel, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.
Police provided three students with a ride back to campus.
The rally was part of the 2006 Soulforce Equality Ride. The Soulforce riders are traveling to Christian and military colleges and universities to use "relentless nonviolent resistance" to seek "freedom from religious and political oppression" for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, according to the group's Web site.
"We are young people from around the country who have come to BYU to say, 'End religious-based discrimination,' " said Jake Reitan, co-director of the Equality Ride.
BYU was the 13th stop on the seven-week national bus tour. The group planned to leave today for Colorado Christian University in Denver.
Matt Kulisch, 23, a BYU student and LDS Church member, led the procession wearing a BYU athletic department T-shirt. Kulisch was arrested first.
"I'm proud to say that I'm gay," Kulisch said. "I'm also proud to say, without a shadow of a doubt, that God loves me."
Police issued citations to those arrested, Jenkins said. Each faces a May court date and potential fine. Liberato said Soulforce agreed to pay the fine.
Liberato said he returned last year from an LDS mission to Chile, where he helped a gay man return to church activity. Liberato said he was ashamed of the strong anti-gay sentiment he displayed.
"I feel penitent for my actions," said Liberato, who walked hand in hand with Jackson to the die-in and the police van.
Soulforce leaders expressed frustration that BYU didn't allow them to give speeches or hand out literature on campus.
BYU's Jenkins said the university upheld its policy governing outside groups coming to campus. BYU informed Soulforce of its policies weeks ago and made it clear the demonstrators would be arrested and how.
BYU allowed Soulforce members to have one-on-one conversations with students on campus Monday. Twenty people gathered to watch the die-in rally shortly after noon, and several said they were gay or lesbian.
"If their intent was to engage in that dialogue they had Monday, my question is, why did this (die-in) need to take place?" Jenkins said.
Homosexual conduct is banned by the Honor Code, but gay students can study at BYU if they avoid advocating a gay lifestyle and any behavior that indicates homosexual conduct. The LDS Church teaches that "marriage between a man and a woman is essential to (God's) eternal plan," according to the 1995 church proclamation on the family. It also teaches that sex is only to be between married men and women.
A gay BYU student who didn't participate in the march said he is going to leave the school because he constantly worries he will be disciplined under the Honor Code.
"I'm constantly in fear of doing something that would have some repercussions," said Emil Pohlig, a senior from Draper, Va. "The counselor I spoke to said any implicit or explicit act or show of homosexuality is subject to investigation or review by the Honor Code Office.
"I'm tired of worrying that anything I do, including this interview, may be considered implicit or explicit behavior."
E-mail: [email protected]