Associated Press

MISSOULA (AP) – A crowd of about 700 friends, community leaders and total strangers packed a church Saturday to show support for a lesbian couple who narrowly escaped an arson fire a day earlier that gutted their home and left a community stunned.

Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff received a standing ovation – alongside another lesbian couple who had been threatened – and an almost constant stream of hugs as they vowed not to let the fire change their view of the community where they’ve lived for almost two years.

“I feel like I’m putting my family in the hands of this community,” Neff said. “And that’s a good place to be.”

Grayson, a University of Montana psychology professor, urged those in the crowd to turn any anger they may have about the fire into positive action.

“Without a doubt, being burned out of our house is the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Grayson told the standing-room only crowd. “What happened to us may have made you angry – very, very angry, and that’s fine. But anger can lead to violence and that’s not OK.”

Grayson was among state university system employees who, along with their gay and lesbian partners, sued the system Monday for not extending insurance and other benefits to same-sex couples.

Two days after they filed their lawsuit, Grayson and Neff and another lesbian couple – Carol Snetsinger and Nancy Siegel – received threatening letters in the mail.

Shortly after 3 a.m. Friday, Grayson and Neff were awakened by a smoke alarm and found the inside of their home in flames. They escaped through a window with their toddler son.

Investigators said someone had broken in, poured flammable liquid throughout the home, and set it on fire. They are treating the blaze as an attempted murder.

Police Capt. Bob Reid, who also spoke at Saturday’s rally, declined to discuss the investigation at length, saying only that authorities have made no arrests and are “no closer” to solving the crime.

The ACLU, which is representing the university employees and their partners, believes Grayson and Neff were targeted because they were named plaintiffs in the lawsuit and are openly gay.

Those who attended Saturday’s rally said targeting Grayson and Neff because of their sexuality, or because they sued to get the same benefits as heterosexual couples, was unacceptable.

“We are here to show our community and our country that Missoula does not tolerate hate,” Jean Curtiss, a Missoula County commissioner, said through tears as she spoke to the crowd. “Yesterday, Adrianne and Carla experienced terror; the terror of being in a house on fire, the terror of their child being in danger, the terror of knowing someone wanted them to die.”

Rep. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, called those responsible for the fire “cowards.” But he also directed criticism at state Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts and the state Board of Regents, saying they had forced the very public lawsuit by not voluntarily extending benefits to gay couples.

“We are awaiting an act of courage from the commissioner, and I hope we see it soon,” Erickson said.

Rep. Kristine Kaufmann, D-Helena, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said the arson attack was a frightening reminder that some will stop at nothing to try to silence those whose lifestyles are different.

“These women were selected because of who they represent – a group of people who refuse to be silent,” said Kaufmann, who is openly gay.

“We are here today to stand with those who have suffered,” added the Rev. Peter Shober of the University Congregational Church. “And we are all here today for the hope of a day when the fear of violence is gone.”

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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