Down the Rabbit Hole

Céleste Perrino-Walker March/April 2002
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America: the land of the free and the home of the brave, where you~ can say what you think and think what you want. Those are rights many of our countrymen have fought and died to defend. In their wildest dreams they probably never imagined that in our country a man could be hauled off to a mental institution for voicing objections to material many would categorize as, to put it nicely, blasphemous and obscene. Michael Marcavage never thought so either. He found out the hard way.

In our land of free speech and freer thinking he must have felt like he'd taken a dive down Alice's rabbit hole— on the end of the ~ite Rabbit's leash. There are few things so sickening as the knowledge that the world no longer makes sense, that "it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get some- where else, you must run at least twice as fast as that."1

Marcavage s bizarre nightmare in Wonderland began in October of 1999. He was a junior at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he learned that a production of the controversial play Corpus Christi would be performed on campus. The play, written by Terrence McNally, features Jesus Christ as a homosexual who has sex with His disciples, is betrayed by His lover, Judas, and crucified for being "king of the queers" "It disturbed me that my school would be allowing this to be performed" said Marcavage. "I immediately went and voiced my opposition to the dean of the School of Communications and the president of the university. They basically told me that this is something that they are going to allow to happen and that there wasn't much they could see themselves doing in regards to it."

Marcavage then created flyers to make Christians on campus aware of the content of the play. His flyer urged them to contact the school and voice opposition to the production. In addition he contacted campus groups and area churches.

"I had a large amount of calls (because of the flyers};' he told Tim Wildmon and Marvin Sanders during art interview on their radio program, Today's Issues. "They came from as far away as Wisconsin. Pastors, students, and members of the Philadelphia community called me to get more information about what was going on. I gave them further information, and not too (long after} I received an e-mail from the associate president of the University Relations. He basically told me in the e-mail that my priorities were misplaced. And he asked me why am I not calling the troops out to protest the sex and violence on television?"

Far from being a lone cry in the dark, Marcavage's objection to the play is just one of many, including that of an Indiana group of 11 local residents and 21 state lawmakers who filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent a performance of Corpus Christi at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. "This is not just an innocuous little play;' attorney John Price told the Associated Press." It's a full-blown, unmitigated attack on Christianity and its founders."

Marcavage met several times with vice president of campus safety William Bergman and director of campus safety Carl Bittenbender. "I just wanted to sit down with someone in the administration level of Temple University," he says "and basically discuss this type of production and see if there were any policies that the university had in place that would prohibit sending a hateful message toward a particular group of people."

Bergman and Bittenbender were concerned about violence stemming from protests outside the theater. Their concerns were not unjustified. The content of the play is so controversial that the Manhattan Theater Club, which eventually produced the play, originally canceled it before it ever hit the boards when they were plagued with threatening phone calls about it. Artistic director Lynne Meadow reported receiving many death threats to Mr. McNally. Following that were threats to exterminate everyone connected with the play and to burn the building to the ground! When several other playwrights threatened to remove their own plays if Corpus Christi wasn't produced, MTC rescinded its decision. The play ultimately opened and was besieged by nearly 2,000 protesters enraged at what they considered to be blasphemy. After its opening in London, a British Muslim group, the Defenders of the Messenger Jesus, were so offended that they proclaimed a fatwa, or death sentence, on McNally.

Rodgers and Hammerstein this is not.

"I have to say that I never expected the university to allow it to take place,"' said Marcavage.

"I mean,} its just like if the KKK wanted to meet in the school of Communications and have a demonstration. There are just certain things that should not be permitted on the grounds of the university, just to respect all of the university's members. This is an issue of respect and I didn't see the students in this case respecting their fellow classmates in doing this presentation. At that point I knew that there was really not much else I could do other than, to' voice my opposition."

When Bergman repeatedly stressed his concern that a protest outside the theater might lead to confrontation between members of the student body, Marcavage agreed not to encourage a protest. Instead he disagreed to do something positive to counter the massage of the play. He asked for, and received, permission from Bergman to hold a Christian outreach program to the students at Temple at the time the, play was running. "I told him that we don't want to protest outside the theater; we don't want to bring negative attention to this production. We'd rather use this as an opportunity to show the students who the real Jesus is and an accurate depiction of His life:' Bergman promised to provide a stage for the presentation.

Marcavage arranged for the performance of the play Final Destiny which portrayed a biblical perspective on the life of Jesus. The Temple University Gospel Choir, Christian bands, and some outside speakers were also scheduled.

On November 1, 1999, only a week before the opposing performances were scheduled to take place, in a move smacking of good cop-bad cop strategy, Bittenbender called Marcavage to tell him that there might not be a stage after all. Marcavage was asked to meet with both Bergman and Bittenbender the following morning. At that meeting Bergman announced that a stage was definitely out of the question. Even when Marcavage offered to pay for the stage out of his own pocket, Bergman refused to change his mind or come up with a valid excuse for his refusal.

At this point, frustrated and stymied, Marcavage excused himself and entered the bathroom, where he locked the door and prayed about what he should do next. Moments later he was interrupted by Bergman, pounding on the door and demanding that he come out to finish the discussion. Marcavage opened the door and told Bergman that he considered the conversation to be over.

Bergman placed a hand around Marcavage's shoulder and forcefully guided him back toward the office. "He said, 'Let's talk about this a little bit more,'" Marcavage said. "I told him, 'Our discussion is over-there's nothing else that needs to be talked about.' As I tried to turn to leave he continued to put more pressure on my shoulder and forced me back into his office. He sat me in the chair in front of his desk, held me in the chair with his right arm, and wouldn't allow me to leave."

Marcavage tried to get up repeatedly, saying it was time for him to go. Finally Bergman let up on the pressure a little, and Marcavage stood up.

Bergman tripped him to the floor; then Bergman and Bittenbender tossed him onto the couch in the office and held him there. Soon after, police officers from the Temple campus arrived. Marcavage was placed in handcuffs and escorted out of the office and downstairs to a waiting police car. Denise Walton, a university staff psychologist who was present as Marcavage was being led by police out of Bergman's office, later stated that she couldn't understand why Marcavage was being involuntarily detained.

"I wasn't told where I was going. I wasn't read any rights. I didn't know if I was being arrested or where they were going to take me, so it was a frightening experience," Marcavage recalled.

Bergman and Bittenbender apparently agreed with the Red Queen's approach to settling all difficulties, large or small: with a quick "Off with his head." If they couldn't stop Marcavage, well, at least they could lock him up to get him out of the way. And, unbelievably, so they did.

Under Pennsylvania law anyone committed involuntarily for a psychological evaluation has to meet certain criteria. He must present a clear threat to himself or others, or there must be reasonable probability of suicide unless treatment is afforded. When interviewed, university students who know Marcavage personally (one of them a registered nurse who saw him the morning of his meeting with Bergman and Bittenbender) were unanimous in their opinion that Marcavage was not a person who would do anything requiring a mandatory mental examination. Nevertheless, he was involuntarily committed to the Emergency Crisis Center at Temple University Hospital. Bittenbender filled out and signed an application for involuntary emergency examination and treatment. In the application Bittenbender claimed that Marcavage was a danger to himself or others, had attempted suicide or made threats to commit suicide,and was severely mentally disabled.

Marcavage waited three hours, half of that time in handcuffs, to be evaluated by Dr. King, the on-call doctor and examining physician. "I was in a suit," Marcavage said. "Everybody was looking at me; they thought I was out of place.

They asked me' what I was doing there, and I told them, 'That's a question you're going to have to ask Vice President William Bergman.' "After Marcavage was finally examined, Dr. King could find "no apparent grounds" for involuntary commitment, and he was discharged.

To add insult to injury, when Marcavage attempted to file a report at the Temple University police station, the officers refused, saying that they couldn't file a charge against Bergman, as he was their boss. Shortly after, Bittenbender arrived and informed Marcavage that there would be no report since there had been no crime. The only recourse available to him was to file an incident report with the Philadelphia Police Department, which he did.

Efforts to gain any sort of recourse through university channels met with similar failure. Marcavage finally approached the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy (CLP) for help. "I tried to resolve this within the, walls of the university;' Marcavage said."I tried to bring some closure to it before it ever went any further than the university, but unfortunately they chose to ignore what happened."

Senior trial attorney Brian Fahling is handling Marcavage's lawsuit against Temple University, Bergman, and Bittenbender. "This kid is as solid as a rock. Besides being a college student on the dean's list, Michael was a White House intern with security clearance, is founder and president of a ministry called Protect the Children, president of his own business, and a volunteer who has worked with Campus Crusade for Christ and gone overseas with Feed the Children," Fahling said. "This is a good Christian kid who wanted to stand up for Jesus, and instead was handcuffed and dragged to a mental hospital as if he'd been seeing pink elephants'''

The incident raises many questions, none of them with comforting answers. When is what you think so objectionable, in our free country, that anyone has a right to cart you off against your will for speaking your mind? Can it happen? It did. Will it happen again? That might depend on the outcome of Michael Marcavage's case.

."You pinch yourself' said Fahling. "Then you get documentation and confirmation of the events and it just leaves you dumbfounded. Fortunately, I think, this is an extreme case, but oftentimes extreme cases become the mundane if they're not addressed swiftly and powerfully, and that's what we're hoping to do."

In an online forum discussing an article about what happened to Michael Marcavage, someone identified as "Gritty" left this message: "This is outrageous. This is behavior akin to the old Soviet Union, not America. I think this is one instance where a lawsuit is warranted, and probably even jail terms for the perpetrators. My hope is Marcavage ends up owning Temple University!" Despite the malice in "Wonderland," Marcavage could be the one left with a Cheshire cat grin.

Celeste-Perrino Walker writes from Rutland, Vermont.

1 Lewis Ca,F0ll, Through the Looking Glass: and What Alice Found There (1862-1863).

2 Interview with Tim Wildmon and Marvin Sanders, Today's Issues, .American Family Radio, Aug. 24, 2000.

) "lndiIDa Group Fights Corpus Christi Play;' Maranatha Christian Journal, July 6, 2001.

. Claude Brodesseur,. 'Corpus Christi' rises again (Manhattan Theater Club-'rescinds cancellation of controversial Terrence McNally play), Copyright 1998, Cahners Publishing Company, Copyright 2000 Gale Group, June I, 1998.

5 Ed Vitagliano, "Christian Student Dragged to Psych Ward After Dispute Over Blasphemous Play;' American Family Association Journa~ Jan. 8, 2000.

Article Author: Céleste Perrino-Walker