A lesbian couple is considering filing assault charges against certain members of a mayoral candidate’s Memphis church claiming they were forcefully and unjustly removed from Sunday service.
As a result of the incident, the Tennessee Equality Project is questioning the pastor’s stance on GLBT civil rights and how it could impact his candidacy for mayor.
Yas Meen and Monique Stevens told the Tennessee Equality Project’s (TEP) Jonathan Cole that a group of about 25 men surrounded them inside the New Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis on Sunday, August 22, and physically forced them out of the building while calling them “bitches”, “Satanic” and “devil worshipers," Cole wrote in the Grand Divisions blog.
Meen, a retired school teacher, and Stevens visited the church that day for the first time in order to learn more about the Reverend Kenneth Whalum, Jr. who is running for Memphis mayor and serves on the Memphis City School’s Board of Education. Meen had considered supporting Whalum’s candidacy in the Oct. 15 election.
Whalum said the women were removed for being disruptive, not for being lesbians – but they tell a different story.
The women told Cole they arrived after the church service began and sat on the front row. Soon, they began to notice looks of disapproval from members of the congregation.
During the service, Whalum asked the congregation to participate in expressions of "sanctified dance" at which point people began to pray while dancing or lying on the floor. Unfamiliar with the style of worship, the couple remained in their seat.
"From the front of the church, the two women alleged that Whalum said ‘this is my house and everybody does what I say. But two people won’t do what I say,’" the TEP blog states.
The women remained seated and Stevens extended her arm on the pew behind Meen.
"[A] security guard asked us to leave because we were disturbing God’s House," Meen told TEP. "I asked what had we done to disturb God’s House. He could not give me an answer. He just said you two need to leave. He informed us that he had called the police."
Not understanding what they had done wrong, Meen told the guard that they would stay and wait for the police to arrive. She said that’s when a group of men gathered around them to force them out of the church as a church photographer snapped photos despite the couple’s requests for her to stop.
"We begged them to stop taking pictures of us," Meen said. "She continued and when she finished, she blew us a kiss and said ‘God bless you!’"
The women claim they were taunted by children and had oil thrown on them by female congregants. Stevens said her glasses were broken in the scuffle and that they both received scratches and bruises from the altercation.
Meen said the security guard could not provide a reason for their ejection from the church until police arrived nearly an hour later in response to a 911 hang-up call.
"That’s when he told us, along with the police, that it was because Monique had extended her arm along the back of the pew seat right next to [me]," she told TEP.
Whalum, however, told the Commercial Appeal that the women were “being disruptive, boisterous and speaking loud. They had to have some kind of agenda to come in church like that.”
“If I put every lesbian out of church, we’d be putting people out of church all day long,” Whalum said.
Cole, who serves as TEP Shelby County Committee Chair and TEP Board Secretary, said that the incident might warrant investigation as a hate crime if the women decide to pursue a case against the people who got physical with them.
"As this violent crime unfolded, Pastor Whalum said nothing and did nothing to intervene," Cole wrote in the blog. "As someone who wants to be the next mayor of Memphis, Pastor Whalum has some explaining to do."