Engaging religious leaders in a conversation about inclusion, and implementing non-violent direct action tactics

Soulforce Inc. uses dialogue and non-violent direct action to make local and national religious institutions more inclusive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) members. GLBT members carry out this work, attempting to engage religious leaders in a conversation about inclusion, and creating non-violent direct action tactics when negotiations fail. The goal of this work is to empower and to renew GLBT members who have suffered as a result of exclusionary policies, statements and practices, and to change the hearts and minds of congregations, the general public, and religious leaders.

This interreligious organization works in the US to end spiritual violence perpetrated against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Their tactic involves research, negotiation, education, and nonviolent direct action. Beginning in 1999, they have targeted several churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and plan to continue each campaign until the targets end their antigay teachings and policies.

Direct action is meant to dramatize and bring attention to the issue through such methods as strikes or sit-ins. It is always nonviolent and often involves acts of civil disobedience. Its purpose is to heighten public awareness and provoke negotiation. They are planned well in advance with the knowledge of the police as well as the target. Direct action is not intended to embarrass or demonize the target and, according to Soulforce, it should stop as soon as negotiation is initiated. If the negations are broken off again, direct action will begin again. Soulforce’s intention is to pursue negotiations relentlessly until an amicable solution is reached.

Careful research is conducted before initiating negotiations in order to identify specific targets, usually the primary proponent of spiritual violence, and to prepare a case against the teachings based on scientific, historical, cultural, and theological information. Extensive knowledge of the specific religion is necessary to provide a strong case.

After preparing a case Soulforce moves to negotiations by asking for an opportunity to present their case to the target. If negotiations are denied or broken off Soulforce moves to nonviolent direct action until negotiations resume. They remain relentless in pursuing negotiations until their demands are met. In an example that involves the Roman Catholic Church, Soulforce wrote to the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000. After their request to meet was denied, Soulforce informed him of the plan to conduct a nonviolent direct action at the annual US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting.

Before moving to direct action, Soulforce attempts to educate the target, either in private or public, stating its case and informing the target of the decision to initiate direct action. As part of the education effort many Soulforce volunteers “adopted” one of the 284 bishops and wrote them letters outlining their complaints. Soulforce demanded, among other things, that the Roman Catholic Church create a committee to reexamine the church’s stance towards gay people. The church refused to meet these demands and so Soulforce initiated direct action.

In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, Soulforce took direct action in several ways, on several occasions. They held daily prayer vigils at the Bishops’ Conference in 2000 and held a rally outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Later they sent a delegation to Rome to petition Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and were prevented from entering.

In 2002 three Soulforce volunteers who were gay Catholics were refused the Eucharist while worshiping with the bishops at the Basilica. Soulforce understood that this was a grave violation of Catholic Cannon Law 912 and they were able to use this knowledge to their advantage. The next day the three volunteers went inside the hotel where the Bishops Conference was being held and asked for the Eucharist to be served to them, an act that is allowed under Catholic Cannon Law 918. This direct action received extensive press coverage because over 200 media representatives were already there to report on the conference. The three volunteers remained passive while they were arrested for trespassing and the judge who presided over their case was sympathetic and suspended their sentence. Soulforce sees this as one small victory on the long path to resolution with the Catholic Church.

Soulforce urges other groups using this tactic to be flexible and do careful research on the religion targeted. They also believe that public opinion is the most important tool groups like them posses to influence religious leaders. As a result, most of their direct action takes place in public and it is important to have a good relationship with the media. They urge groups using this tactic to be prepared for a long time commitment and to be attentive to the small victories that may take place each time a direct action is staged.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: