Did University Treat Christian Protest as Mental Illness?

PHILADELPHIA “This isn't right. You know this isn't right.”

That's what Michael Marcavage says he told a Temple University police officer as the man handcuffed Marcavage and led him to a squad car, which Marcavage says took him against his will to a state mental hospital.

Marcavage claims that he was committed to the hospital in November 1999 after he organized opposition to a campus play that depicted Jesus as a homosexual who sleeps with his disciples. He is now suing the Philadelphia university.

Temple University spokeswoman Harriet Goodheart said that although the university would not discuss details of the case, “The university vigorously denies the charges as set forth in the lawsuit. We are confident that the accusations will through the judicial process be shown to be inaccurate.”

Discovery (the process of gathering facts in the case) begins this month.

The dispute stems from October 1999, when students in the university's theater department announced that they would be producing Terence McNally's “Corpus Christi.”

The play, which was the target of demonstrations when it was staged in New York in 1998, portrays Jesus as the sexual partner of Judas, and implies that the disciples hold a drunken orgy. Jesus is crucified for being “king of the queers.”

Marcavage, then a junior at Temple, complained to the dean of the School of Communications and Theater and to the university's president. He then began posting fliers against the play.

As promises of support poured in, Marcavage said, he met with Vice President of Campus Safety William Bergman and Director of Campus Safety Carl Bittenbender. The university was concerned that protests would turn confrontational, and so Marcavage agreed not to hold a demonstration. Instead, he asked if he could put on a separate performance, featuring a Christian play and the Temple University Gospel Choir as well as an array of Christian speakers, to “show students who the real Jesus is.”

The university agreed and, according to Marcavage, promised that it would provide a stage.

However, Marcavage says that Bittenbender called him Nov. 1, 1999, to retract the school's offer of a stage. He then asked Marcavage to meet with him and Bergman at the vice president's office the next morning.

There, Marcavage says, Bergman again refused him a stage. Marcavage, who had been working on the event for several weeks, became upset. He felt tears coming, so he excused himself, went to the bathroom, locked the door, washed his face and prayed about what to do next.

According to Marcavage, Bergman then began pounding on the door, saying, “Michael, come out of there, we need to talk to you.” Marcavage says he opened the door and “told him that I believed our conversation was over.”

He said Bergman then grabbed him, propelled him into the office, and forced him onto a couch.

Marcavage stated that a university police officer then arrived, handcuffed him, and took him to the Emergency Crisis Center at Temple University Hospital. There Bittenbender allegedly signed a statement declaring that Marcavage was “severely mentally disabled,” represented a “clear and present danger to others,” had “inflicted or attempted to inflict serious bodily harm on another” within the past 30 days, and was at risk of suicide.

The office of campus safety declined comment, referring Register calls about the alleged incident to Temple spokeswoman Goodheart.

Dr. Stephen King, one of the doctors who examined Marcavage, could not be reached for this story.

Marcavage says he left the hospital and tried to file a report with the campus police, who he said refused to file charges against Bergman because he was “our boss.” Then, Marcavage said, Bittenbender entered and informed him that no report would be filed because no crime had been committed. Marcavage then took his case to the Philadelphia police.

He also filed suit against the school and sought the services of Brian Fahling, an attorney with the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy.

Fahling noted Marcavage's impressive record, including stints on the Dean's List, an internship in the West Wing of the White House, and ownership of his own business, which provides voice mail services to Internet companies. “He is about as good a plaintiff as you could hope for,” Fahling said.

As for the university's response, Fahling said that documents signed by doctors who had examined Marcavage when he was admitted to the hospital would show that Marcavage was mentally stable and in no way a threat to himself or others.

Kathy Logan, a friend who met Marcavage through campus ministry programs, concurred. Logan, a registered nurse, said she had “thought he was joking” when Marcavage called her to say that he was in the psychiatric ward.

She immediately headed over to the hospital, where one of the doctors pulled her aside and asked her privately what she thought of “Michael's mental stability,” she said.

“I've known him for a few years,” she said, adding that he was “stable” and in no way struck her as mentally disabled.

As for Corpus Christi, it played for two performances, both of which were sold out.

There were quiet demonstrations outside. In April 2000, Marcavage was finally able to hold his counterevent. At that time, Marcavage said, the university was “very cooperative.”