The gay rights movement has found God.
After decades of working to change secular institutions, the national
movement, which has largely convinced society that homosexuality is neither a
mental disorder nor a crime, is focusing on what its leaders say is their last,
and biggest, challenge: convincing believers that it's not a sin.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the country's oldest gay rights
organization, announced Monday that a religious organization representing 1,400
Protestant congregations that unconditionally welcome gays and lesbians has
merged with the task force.
Over the next five years, the task force wants to increase membership in
the Institute for Welcoming Resources to 10,000 congregations.
"It's a very proud and happy day for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender movement," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which is based in New York. "We see this as a
critically important step in reclaiming the language of faith and moral values
from those on the right that attempt to hijack faith and moral values."
The merger means organizations working for acceptance of gays and lesbians
in several denominations -- including the Presbyterian, Methodist and
Lutheran churches -- will be part of the task force.
"This is the first of its kind in terms of scope and collaboration," said
the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, who heads the Institute for Welcoming Resources,
which is now part of the task force.
The move comes two months after the first national Black Church Summit in
Atlanta, which created a network of clergy to counter discrimination against
gays and lesbians in African American churches across the United States.
And last summer the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., the
nation's largest gay rights organization, started a religion and faith program.
Voelkel said the "welcoming" movement is "accepting LGBT people as full
human beings welcome in the congregation."
When they join the welcoming and affirming network, congregations must do
three things, Voelkel said. First, they have to sponsor conversation among
congregants about gay and lesbian issues in society and scripture. Then, church
members will write a public statement welcoming and affirming gays and
lesbians, and finally a church council or the entire congregation will vote on
With the backing of the task force, which is known for its grassroots
organizing, Voelkel will work to expand the number of congregations taking
The impetus for political organizations formally embracing religious
causes was the November 2004 election, when voters in 11 states passed
constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, with backing from many
churches and religious groups.
"We saw anti-marriage legislation in so many states passing, with
basically glee, that we realized we formally needed more religious outreach to
churches, clergy, synagogues and mosques," said Sylvia Rhue, director of
religious affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition, an African American
gay rights organization.
That resulted in the Atlanta summit in January, attended by 44 clergy
members from across the country, including the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and
Bishop Yvette Flunder of San Francisco's City of Refuge United Church of Christ
in the South of Market neighborhood.
"In the past, we were trying to fight religious wars with secular tools,"
Rhue said. "Now, we're fighting with religious tools."
The place of gays and lesbians in religious institutions has been gaining
prominence in recent years, most notably with the election of Gene Robinson as
a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003 in New Hampshire. The California
Diocese of the Episcopal Church, which serves San Francisco, San Mateo,
Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin counties, could reopen that debate if it
selects a gay man or a lesbian for its next bishop in May.
The United Methodist Church voted down expanding the roles of gays and
lesbians nationally at its 2004 churchwide conference, and the Evangelical
Lutheran Church did the same at its church assembly the following year. Last
year, the Roman Catholic Church banned the ordination of priests who have
"deep-seated" homosexual tendencies, though there is a range of interpretation
and the leader of the U.S. Conference of Bishops said seminarians with
"homosexual inclinations" can make good priests.
In Santa Rosa earlier this month, a Presbyterian minister was cleared of
charges that she violated church teaching by officiating same-sex weddings. And
leaders of Conservative Judaism will vote in December on whether to end the
movement's ban on gay rabbis and same-sex union ceremonies.
This activity shows that the religious right is not the only religious
voice on gay and lesbian issues, said Jay Johnson, programming director of the
Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific
School of Religion in Berkeley.
But many gay and lesbian leaders did not believe faith communities would
support them, he said.
"I think there's been a long-standing impression, and in many cases a
well-deserved impression, that religion is the enemy of LGBT people," said
Johnson, who said it is more difficult to come out as Christian to his gay
friends than vice versa.
About 50 "welcoming and affirming" churches recently formed a network in
the Bay Area, joining similar networks in Virginia, Florida, North Carolina,
Michigan and Arizona.
A leader of Focus on the Family, one of the country's most influential
conservative religious organizations, predicted that denominations that become
known for welcoming gays and lesbians will see their membership shrink.
"People have left these denominations in droves over this issue," said
Peter Brandt, director of public policy for the organization. "This will result
in the continued erosion of scriptural integrity as well as membership."
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle