PHILADELPHIA – A city judge dismissed charges Thursday against four members of a conservative Christian group who were arrested last fall while picketing a street festival for gays and lesbians.
Common Pleas Judge Pamela Dembe tossed the charges after watching a videotape of the events leading to the defendants' arrest, saying: "We are one of the very few countries that protect unpopular speech."
The demonstrators, affiliated with a local group called Repent America (search), say their opposition to homosexuality is based on the Bible. They had faced a variety of charges, including felonies, in connection with their protest last fall at the Outfest (search) event in downtown Philadelphia.
Prosecutors had said the bullhorn-wielding activists, led by Repent America founder Michael Marcavage (search) of Lansdowne, were trying to incite the crowd. The defendants said they were being prosecuted for voicing their religious belief that homosexuality is a sin.
Marcavage had been charged with felony riot, criminal conspiracy and ethnic intimidation — Pennsylvania's version of a hate crime — and five misdemeanor counts including disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment.
He has been arrested, detained or cited by police around the country since founding Repent America in 2002, including at a demonstration against same-sex marriages in San Francisco and at a graphic traveling protest in Connecticut against abortion.
Last month, Dembe overturned a lower court ruling that kept the activists from picketing gay-themed events in Philadelphia.