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Gay Catholics denied Communion found guilty


As she prepared to declare their guilt and sentence the three defendants, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Mildred Edwards told the dozen or so people gathered in the second floor courtroom what most of them already knew.

“This is not a difficult case on the facts.”

Those facts: On the morning of Nov. 12, 2002, three gay Catholic activists -- 65-year-old Kara Speltz, 38-year-old Ken Einhaus, and 57-year-old Mike Perez -- refused requests from hotel management and the D.C. Metropolitan Police to leave the lobby of Capitol Hill’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, site of the 2002 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Speltz, Einhaus and Perez had been denied Communion the previous evening during Mass at Washington’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. That annual Mass, held to coincide with the bishops’ meeting, had previously been the site of protests. (A Washington archdiocesan spokesperson would say later the denial of Communion was a “case of mistaken identity” -- that shrine officials mistook Speltz, Einhaus and Perez for activists from “Rainbow Sash,” another gay rights group whose objective was to politicize the faith’s most sacred ritual.)

Speltz, Einhaus and Perez went to the Hyatt lobby the next morning to “engage” the bishops and, they emphasized, to find one who would give them Communion. They positioned themselves -- the two men kneeling, each with hands outstretched to receive the host -- just beyond the escalators from which dozens of bishops would soon spew forth.

Speltz, Einhaus and Perez are lifelong Catholics and members of “Soulforce,” an ecumenical organization founded to change church policies and teachings related to treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians. They were no strangers to the Hyatt, having spent the two days prior to Nov. 12 on the sidewalk outside the hotel protesting.

But their attendance at the shrine Mass was not part of their protest, the three insisted. The rejection at the Communion line, they said, came as a complete surprise. In fact, recalled Speltz, she had sat in the same pew at the previous year’s Mass and received the sacrament without objection or fanfare.

Short of receiving Communion next morning in the hotel lobby, the defendants told the court, they sought an explanation for the “spiritual violence” that had been directed at them.

Commotion and anger

Neither the Eucharist nor an explanation was offered. Instead, the commotion the three activists and their supporters generated in the already bustling corridor of the 850-room hotel angered those responsible for ensuring a smooth meeting of an already embattled U.S. hierarchy.

The Communion-seeking protesters had drawn the attention of dozens of the 200-plus credentialed media, there to document the bishops’ handling of the child sexual abuse scandals. Television camera lights billowed and flash bulbs lit up the lobby.

“We have to do something,” the bishops’ meeting planner urged hotel manager Michael Smith. “They’re not allowed to be here.”

Smith was already on heightened alert. The bishops’ meeting was a big contract, worth millions over the next few years to the hotel he has managed since April 2001. The media spotlight was on his high-profile guests.

Security was tight. In addition to the Hyatt’s plainclothes and uniformed security personnel, the bishops provided their own rent-a-cops. The Capitol Hill police, the D.C. police and even the Secret Service had plans to intervene should they be called upon.

Smith had hotel security staff instruct Speltz, Einhaus, Perez and their supporters to leave. The D.C. police arrived and issued the same warning -- this time backed by the threat of arrest. Their supporters dispersed, but Speltz, Einhaus and Perez remained, until led away by the police.

Two and a half months later, the three -- a retired grandmother from Oakland, Calif., a construction worker from Seattle, and a social scientist from Arlington, Va. -- were together again, in a courthouse just a mile and half from the scene of their crime. On the misdemeanor charge of “unlawful entry,” D.C.’s equivalent of trespassing, they faced up to 60 days in jail and a fine not to exceed $350.

Motivations, Edwards told the three, “do not excuse a violation of the law.” She declared them guilty.

And then it got interesting.

Defense attorney Mark Goldstone argued the defendants should be sentenced to “time served” -- each had spent 30 hours in the D.C. jail following their arrests. Government prosecutors agreed, but also urged the court to prohibit the three from going near the Grand Hyatt for 12 months. The latter was an attempt, each side acknowledged, to prevent the three from protesting at the November 2003 bishops’ meeting.

The defense, it appeared, would have been satisfied, if not happy, with that outcome.

But not Judge Edwards.

“I’m not sure it was necessary to lock up these people for 30 hours for what they did,” she said.

For the first time in her 15 years on the bench, Edwards told the court, she would “suspend the imposition of a sentence.”

Composed and efficient over the course of the two-day trial, but with sentencing now complete, Edwards unloaded. She addressed the defendants: “Tremendous violence was done to you, who are the body of Christ, and the body of Christ was denied to you.”

She informed the defendants each would be required to pay $50 into the District of Columbia’s Victims of Violent Crime Compensation Fund. That payment, she said, placed the three defendants in “solidarity” with other victims of violence.

“As a member of your church,” said Edwards, “I ask you to forgive the church.”

It was a fluke, in fact, that had landed the three defendants in Edwards’ courtroom. They were originally scheduled to be tried in the court of Judge Robert Rigsby, a former prosecutor with a reputation of hostility to novel defenses and social causes. But through a series of snafus -- Rigsby’s docket was full, the court did not have the available bodies to empanel a jury, and a family crisis required Rigsby’s presence outside the court -- the case was delayed five days and moved to Edwards’ courtroom.

First up for the prosecution was hotel manager Smith, followed by a D.C. police officer. Both appeared disciplined and dispassionate, with little interest in the nature of the demonstration they quashed.

Under questioning from attorney Joe (“reasonable doubt at reasonable rates”) Cosgrove, the defense’s first witness, Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, told the court that if he had arrived at the hotel lobby earlier than he did, he would have defused the situation by talking with the three defendants and offering Communion in one of the hotel rooms that doubled as a chapel.

Then it was the defendants’ turn. Their presence in the hotel lobby was not primarily designed to send a message, they said. “It was to get Communion, it was always to get Communion,” said Perez.

Wouldn’t it be unusual, asked the prosecution, to receive Communion in a hotel lobby? “It was unusual to be denied the night before,” responded Perez.

Speltz told the court she went to the Hyatt Nov. 12 to give the bishops an opportunity “to redeem themselves.” She cited Canon 918 of church law: “[Communion] should be administered outside Mass to those who request it for a just cause.” Given the justice of their cause, said Speltz, it was a “requirement” that the bishops provide the sacrament.

What is typical?

As the 30-minute cross-examination concluded, the young government prosecutor told Speltz that people in other religions feel slighted by their churches from time to time, but don’t feel obligated to engage in illegal protests. This was different, Speltz responded. “As Catholics, we believe that Jesus Christ is actually present in [his] body and blood and the church was telling us that we can’t bring Jesus into our lives.”

Finally, Ken Einhaus was asked if it was “typical” to receive Communion in a hotel lobby. “I don’t know what’s typical when you’ve been refused Communion without explanation,” responded Einhaus.

The defense rested.

As a preamble to her decision and sentencing, Edwards told the defendants how well-heeled defendants in high-profile cases work to establish “the perfect jury”; defense teams in such cases conduct focus groups and empanel mock juries to develop profiles of sympathetic juries. Such a jury, in this case, said Edwards, would appreciate the argument that the church should be called “to account for its sins of homophobia.”

Said Edwards: “You’re looking at one-twelfth of your perfect jury.” The judge recalled how 30 years prior, as a Georgetown University law student, she had assisted in the defense of Catholic anti-war activists Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. Nevertheless, she told them, “I am duty bound to find you guilty of unlawful entry.”

Edwards did not, however, grant the prosecutorial request that the three be banned from the hotel area. “There is no way I am going to order you away from the Hyatt. You can engage in peaceful demonstration as long as it is law abiding.” Tears of joy welled in the eyes of the defendants, who realized that victory -- whatever the legal technicalities -- was theirs.

“Go in peace,” said Edwards.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003