Federal lawsuit: College committed student after dispute over religious protest

Monday, February 19, 2001

A Philadelphia student is suing university officials, claiming he was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward after a dispute over a religious demonstration.

Michael Marcavage, a Temple University senior, alleges that William Bergman, vice president of campus safety, and Carl Bittenbender, director of campus safety, had him committed to the Emergency Crisis Center at the university's hospital on Nov. 2, 1999, after a dispute over a demonstration he planned in response to a controversial play.

The incident began when Marcavage and a group of fellow Christian students decided to stage a counter-demonstration to the university's staging of the play Corpus Christi, which depicts Jesus Christ as a homosexual who has sex with his disciples. The play, which opened on Broadway in 1998, has been a focus of controversy in the Christian community.

In a telephone interview, Marcavage said he was “horrified” when he learned of the theater department's intent to stage the play. After complaining to the dean of the School of Communications and Theater, Marcavage and his group posted fliers on the campus to make all Christians “aware of this horrible play.”

Marcavage said his group had planned to protest the play's Nov. 8 and 9 showings, but were dissuaded by security officials, who believed such a protest would lead to conflict between the Christian group and the play's supporters. After several meetings, Marcavage, Bergman and Bittenbender agreed instead for a stage to be set up a few blocks away from the theater for what Marcavage described as a Christian outreach program.

“We did not want to protest the play and bring negative attention to it,” says Marcavage, “The planned event was to be a demonstration of who the real Jesus was.”

Marcavage said he and the two men “sealed the agreement with a handshake.”

But later that evening, Marcavage said, university officials called him and said there would be no stage for the event because the funds required for the set up were unavailable.

Marcavage said he met with the two men the next morning in Bergman's office and offered to pay for the stage, but they refused. He said he then he excused himself to the bathroom to collect his thoughts and pray.

Marcavage said the two men followed him to the bathroom, pounded on the door and asked to speak with him. He said he opened the door, returned to the office and then attempted to leave the room. He said they then tripped him and held in a chair against his will. Eventually, he said, he was handcuffed and taken to Temple University Hospital's Emergency Crisis Center, where he was held for 3 ½ hours until he was released under hospital officials' directions.

University officials, however, offer a different version of events.

According to yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, officials claim Marcavage became distraught in the meeting, and they feared he might injure himself. They said Marcavage began crying and shouting “It's over!” and stayed in the bathroom for 15 minutes.

They also said he had asked for the stage only the day before the incident and that they acted solely out of concern for his safety.

Officials also point out that Marcavage mounted a two-hour demonstration with preaching and gospel singers using loudspeakers provided by the university, and that he led smaller protests and a campus Christian rally.

Marcavage said he tried to file a report with the university's police department after he was detained, but officers turned him away.

“They laughed at me and said that they couldn't take a report about their boss,” he said.

Marcavage eventually filed the report with Philadelphia police.

Brian Fahling, Marcavage's attorney, said his client's “rights to free speech were abused.”

“He was denied the right to present a Christian response to a play he felt was blasphemous,” said Fahling, an attorney with the American Family Association Law Center in Tupelo, Miss.

Fahling says the federal lawsuit contains a hybrid of free-exercise, speech, assembly and other claims.

“This is a highly unusual situation,” he said.

Harriet K. Goodheart, acting director of communications at Temple University, declined to comment but released a statement saying that Temple respects the free-speech rights of all its students. The statement also said the university “unequivocally denies Mr. Marcavage's allegations and will vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

Bergman, when contacted for this story, denied all charges and vowed to “rigorously pursue the matter in court.”

Efforts to contact Bittenbender were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Marcavage says the incident is part of an ongoing trend of intolerance toward Christian views at Temple.

“The political majority is allowed to exercise their free-speech rights while the religious minorities are muzzled and labeled intolerant,” he said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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