Gay-rights protesters, former Senate candidate disrupt House chambers

Staff writerJune 2, 2011 

A handful of gay-rights protesters, including a former U.S. Senate candidate, burst into the House chambers while legislators were in session this afternoon, chanting slogans until they were removed by General Assembly Police officers. Both the House and Senate were in session at the time.

Arrested on charges of disorderly conduct were James Weatherly Neal, Angel Chandler and Mary Beth Counce. Neal, a Chapel Hill businessman, ran for senate as an openly gay candidate in 2008.

General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver said they were being booked into the Wake County jail in dowtown Raleigh late this afternoon. Further information about their ages and where they live was not immediately available.

Witnesses said three to five people were involved, some shouting “Liberty and justice for all!” House Speaker Thom Tillis repeatedly banged his gavel, but kept the session running after the momentary disruption.

They were participating in a larger group of gay-rights activists who entered the legislative building this afternoon following a “Rally for Equality” outside that organizers estimated drew about 200 people.

Rally participants said charging into the House chambers was not the rally's intention. Ian Palmquist of Equality NC, a gay-rights group, issued a statement about the outburst this afternoon:

"While we share the protesters' passion for equal rights, we cannot condone today's disruption of the House session," Palmquist said.

The larger event was organized by a group called Sexuality and Gender Alliance and GetEQUAL NC. They were organized to oppose two companion bills in the General Assembly that would amend the state constitution to declare that marriage between man and a woman is the only valid domestic union.

The groups say the bills would also prevent businesses and cities in the state from offering domestic partner benefits, and would nullify the three cities that provide them now: Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Asheville.

About an hour after the protesters were removed, Tillis dismissed the student pages for the week by apologizing for the outburst. "It was another disruptive and disrespectful display that will not be tolerated in this House," he said.

Today's was the third protest that has interrupted the House this session. The other two, however, were confined to the visitors gallery and not the floor of the chamber.

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