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Jumping the gates of hell

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Jumping for Jesus' Gene Sullivan is psyched for his stunt this Sunday at the Western Montana Fair. He'll don his leather jumpsuit emblazoned with a red cross across his chest, hop on his motorcycle and crash through a wall of fire in the name of the Lord.

"It's kind of woven in through the program that we're there representing the Gospel," Sullivan says.

Sullivan isn't shy about proselytizing. After his jump this Sunday, he'll invite fairgoers to pray with him. But such public proselytizing recently grabbed the attention of local and national watchdogs who expressed concern about preferential treatment given to certain religious groups at the fair.

"We don't think that it should be there at all," says Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert of the Jump for Jesus event. "It is organized by the county of Missoula and, therefore, it should be neutral toward religion."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation lodged a complaint in April with Missoula County after a local resident alerted the nonprofit foundation that people attending a religious service last year were allowed free fair admittance. Markert says that kind of perk clearly violates the law. But as long as Jump for Jesus attendees are treated the same as other fairgoers the group has the same right to express its opinions and faith as any other group at the fairgrounds.

"It is a free speech issue," Markert says.

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Missoula County Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell says fair administrators are legally in the clear as long as they don't show favoritism toward certain religious groups.

"We just have to treat that event like any other event," Bickell says. "We can't create a special class."

Missoula Pastor Keith Mobley is sponsoring Jumping for Jesus' performance. According to a contract between Missoula County and Mobley, Mobley is paying $200 to rent the fairground's arena and grandstand between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Aug. 15.

Sullivan, meanwhile, is focused on his stunt. The takeoff, he says, represents one's launch into life, and the flaming wall represents the gates of hell. His eventual safe landing signifies salvation.

Jumping for Jesus performed a similar stunt before a packed crowd at the Western Montana Fair in 2007. "We're really excited about going back," Sullivan says.

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