Academy warns activists

Group's `don't ask, don't tell' protest could lead to arrests


The Naval Academy has threatened to have members of a national gay rights organization arrested if the group enters the campus as part of a planned protest tomorrow.

Sixty students with Soulforce are expected instead to protest the academy's "don't ask, don't tell" policy outside the academy's gates tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., said Jacob P. Reitan, who is organizing the event.

He said some protesters might also try to enter the campus, which is guarded by Department of Defense police and Marines.

The protest would be the second in a series of "Equality Rides" events that Soulforce is organizing at colleges and universities that expel students who are openly gay. The group also plans to protest at the Air Force Academy, West Point and the Coast Guard Academy.

"While the Naval Academy supports and defends every citizen's right to freedom of speech, we also have an obligation to ensure our mission and activities are free from disruption," academy spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons said in an e-mailed statement.

"Our policy is to decline any special interest groups from coming aboard the Academy to advocate their own causes, business interests and advance personal agendas."

Soulforce had hoped to bring gay and lesbian students to the academy so midshipmen would have a chance to interact with openly gay students.

"People need to be given the opportunity to get to know gay people and hear our individual stories," Reitan said. "And that is really the problem at the Naval Academy. The Naval Academy midshipman don't have the benefit of serving alongside of gay and lesbian people who are out."

Tommie Lee Watkins, who resigned from the academy in 1997 after officials began investigating him for homosexual conduct, will attend the protest, returning to Annapolis for the first time since he left eight years ago.

He said he believes the decision to bar Soulforce from campus is illegal.

"We're really not coming to cause trouble rather than to educate and empower and inspire," he said. "That's what I think they are not getting."

Soulforce will start an online petition tomorrow asking service members to say they would not have concerns about training and fighting alongside gay soldiers, said the Rev. Mel White, the group's executive director.

The Naval Academy is in compliance with a Department of Defense policy that prohibits service members from revealing homosexual orientation, said Gibbons.

In April, about 60 students went by bus to Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

"They were kind of reluctant to let us on to campus, but Reverend Falwell said, `OK, come on.' We were allowed to worship with them and eat with them," Reitan said.

The Naval Academy had a different response. In a letter to Soulforce about its plan to come to the campus, Capt. Helen Dunn, chief of staff and deputy superintendent of the Naval Academy, said: "Accessing the Academy grounds for the purpose of protesting or engaging midshipmen, faculty and staff, may subject you to arrest and prosecution by the appropriate Federal authorities."

However, Reitan said that won't deter his group.

"We're not trying to change the spirit of the academy," he said. "We're not trying to make it gay. We want to serve the country without having to tell a lie."

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