CLEVELAND - Police arrested nearly 200 gay rights activists staging a peaceful demonstration today outside the United Methodist Church's General Conference.
Activists upset by the church's stand against homosexual inclusion had called for a mass, nonviolent protest outside the convention hall where the General Conference is meeting through Friday. It was expected to take up the issue of homosexuality on Thursday.
Inside the hall, where delegates to the conference were already meeting, about 100 pro-gay demonstrators briefly interrupted an ecumenical worship service with chants of ''extend the table!''
After the chants and a song, they sat down and the service continued. The sermon by Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey made only passing reference to debate among Methodists and his fellow 70 million Anglicans on ''issues to do with personal freedom and its limits'' such as homosexuality and abortion.
By midmorning, about 190 demonstrators who had blocked a driveway to the convention hall had been arrested - not handcuffed but simply told they were under arrest and ordered to follow officers.
Protesters said one of those arrested was Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, India's independence leader. Gandhi said Tuesday he had put aside anti-gay prejudice.
Demonstrators were charged with aggravated disorderly conduct, police Commander James Davidson said. The charge carries a maximum $150 fine and 30-day jail sentence, but Davidson said none of the protesters was expected to spend any time in behind bars.
Asked why he was willing to be arrested, Ed Polinardo of New York City said: ''It has to do with God loving everybody.''
A handful of anti-gay protesters shouted insults at the protesters. ''We're opposed to perverts acting like sodomy is a civil right,'' said Chuck Spingola of Newark, an evangelist minister.
Soulforce, a gay-straight coalition from several denominations, had trained more than 400 people in nonviolence techniques Tuesday night.
Today's demonstration was timed to coincide with today's worship service by Carey, the world leader of Anglican Christians. He and most other Anglican bishops oppose same-sex behavior.
On Tuesday, a conference panel voted 77-32 to fight a late-term abortion procedure opponents call ''partial-birth abortion''. The United Methodist Church is considered the nation's largest religious body that favors abortion rights. The issue still must be voted on by the full conference.
The General Conference is the chief policy-setting body for the United Methodist Church, which has 8.4 million U.S. members and 1.2 million overseas. It meets every four years.