(This story was published in 2005).

By Joseph McCombs and Cyd Zeigler Jr.

The festive atmosphere of Gay Community Night at the Philadelphia Phillies was interrupted Thursday night when two men unfurled — with permission of the team — a banner covering a row of eight seats in the high right-field stands that read, “Homosexuality is Sin. Christ Can Set You Free.” Fans in nearby sections began to boo the men; within minutes, some of the gay and lesbian fans in sections 307 to 309 began approaching the two men and the banner in section 303.

The incident began in the fourth inning, and eight to 10 people stood in front of the banner to block its view, a tactic reminiscent of the “Angels of Peace,” whose giant angel wings blocked the view of Rev. Fred Phelps’s protest signs at the funeral service of Matthew Shepard. The two sign holders were from Repent America, a fundamentalist Christian group opposed to homosexuality. On their website, Repent America claimed: “Phillies Lose, Christians Win.”

One of the two anti-gay protesters, center, leaves the stadium in the sixth inning (Joseph McCombs photo)

Voices were rising quickly and more and more people began approaching the men during the incident in the fourth inning before Philadelphia police and stadium security surrounded the growing congregation. They told the offended fans that the Phillies had decided that the two men and the banner should stay, and dispersed all but one of the people surrounding the men; that lone holdout refused to go and police resisted using force to remove him.

Many of the people in section 303, which is about 40 yards from the sections where about 880 Gay Community Night attendees sat, expressed outrage that the men would do this, and that the Phillies would let them stay.

“They’ll make the city look bad,” said Philadelphia resident Jamie Huber of the Repent America representatives. “Philly’s not like that. This is not the city’s opinion.” Other fans nearby nodded in agreement.

Added Phillie fan Stuart Alter, “They’re looking more silly than anything else.” James Duggan, who stood several rows in front of the sign, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “These people are false Christians. I was told the Phillies’ lawyers arranged this with Repent America’s lawyers, and I find that totally offensive, too.”

“It’s pretty clear under the Constitution, that if you’re going to have a gay community night, people have the right to express another opinion,” Mike Stiles, vice-president of operations and administration for the Phillies, told the Inquirer. “We understand it’s distressing for some people to have to look at that sign. We believe the leaders of the gay community who arrange this night like any other group know what they’re going to have to put up with.”

According to event organizer Larry Felzer, this is the third straight year that protestors from Repent America have come the Gay Community Night and held the same or similar banner. The previous two years, they had been ordered to remove the sign. One of the men, Michael Marcavage, has been there each year, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“My sense is from the article that appeared in today’s Inquirer, the comments on the Phillies message boards and callers to WIP (our sports talk radio station), that the Phillies’ decision to allow the banner to continue to hang is not being viewed very favorably,” Felzer said. “Most callers to WIP were critical of allowing the banner to stay up and felt it should have not been allowed to hang.”

Guest Code of Conduct at Citizen’s Bank Park, the Phillies’ home field, says that “Guests must refrain from conduct that is inconsistent with the fun, family atmosphere that should prevail at Citizens Bank Park and the Citizens Bank Park experience, including but not limited to: interfering with other guests’ ability to enjoy the game,” and goes on to specify that “Banners and signs may not bear a message that . . . is slanderous, [or] contains ‘fighting words’ likely to provoke a breach of the peace.”

On its website, Repent America detailed negotiations it had with the Phillies. “Following a series of letters between L. Theodore Hoppe, Jr., Repent America legal counsel, and William Y. Webb, Vice-President, General Counsel, and Secretary for the Phillies, earlier this month, RA was free to display the banner from their stadium seats … without being ejected. ‘We do not believe that wording would violate the content requirements because it does not constitute fighting words per se,’ Mr. Webb confirmed in a letter dated August 9, 2005.” Phillies officials could not be reached for comment.

But fan Tim Monaghan said, “If they had the same sign behind home plate, it’d be down in three minutes.”

“On a night when we didn’t have the gay community, we wouldn’t necessarily permit a sign like that,” Stiles told the Inquirer. “A sign expressing an objection to the war would not be permitted because it has nothing to do with baseball.”

Several people wondered aloud what the Phillies’ policy would be if someone brought a sign to Hispanic Heritage Night this Sept. 7 saying, “Hispanics are sinners;” or if a sign that read “Being Asian is Being Evil” would be allowed to stand at Asian Pacific Celebration Night.

Despite holding a press credential, security prevented Outsports from speaking to the two sign-holders for this article, which raised questions of how concerned with the First Amendment the Philadelphia Phillies organization really was. When asked why, a security guard who had spoken to a police officer about it said, simply, “because.”

The two banner-holders remained silent throughout their presence. Nevertheless, their close proximity to the LGBT contingent was cause for concern, as was the park’s decision to allow them to hold the sign, seemingly interrupting many of the gay and straight fans’ enjoyment of the ballgame.

In the sixth inning, when the two men folded their banner and followed a security contingent out of the ballpark, about a quarter of the stadium stood and applauded for about a minute.

Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of Outsports.com, was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. While some wags cackled at the prospects of Zeigler playing the pitcher role, he sent a perfect strike into the glove of the Phillie Phanatic mascot. In a further nod to the LGBT community, the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus was invited to sing the National Anthem before the game.

As for the game, the Phillies jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, aided by a Chase Utley two-run homer, but the Washington Nationals whittled away at the lead and won the game with two runs in the eighth inning off reliever Ugueth Urbina. Outsports favorite Pat Burrell, whose off-line throw from left field allowed the fifth run to score, had a chance to redeem himself in the bottom half of the inning, but hit into an inning-ending double play. Washington held on for a 5-4 victory, salvaging a split in the doubleheader.