Colorado Springs Gazette, 22 Aug 99

Conference in Springs will address gays, religion

Group seeks to hear from varying voices


By Eric Gorski/The Gazette
Story editor Cliff Foster; headline by Connie Becchio

The emotional debate about gays and religion again will take center stage in Colorado Springs - only this time the agenda will be set not by conservative religious groups but by a liberal one that affirms homosexuality.

The key message - that not all religious perspectives condemn homosexuality - is part of an effort to influence an issue that has been a bedrock of conservative groups. To underline that, the National Religious Leadership Roundtable chose to hold its semiannual conference in a city it calls "the front porch of the religious right."

"My belief is that the religious right has taken the advantage of framing the debate," said Laura Montgomery-Rutt, national organizer for Equal Partners in Faith, a conference co-sponsor with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.

"They started this as Christians vs. gays," she said. "We're here to say you can't claim the religious ground; you can't speak for all people of faith because you don't."

The only part of the conference open to the public is a Monday night forum titled "Spirituality and Sexuality: In the Image of God."

A panel will include the Rev. Jimmy Creech, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church who faced a church trial for holding a marriage-like ceremony between two women, as well as Jewish, United Church of Christ and minority leaders active in gay rights.

The panel lacks Springs pastors or activists. Organizers invited most local churches to the forum, and representatives from the Springs-based evangelical ministry Focus on the Family say they'll attend.

The goal is to draw voices from both sides of the debate, and the audience can take part in a question-and-answer session, said Christy Pitts, community organizer in the Springs for Equality Colorado, a gay rights group.

Similar dialogues have unfolded as major Christian denominations either have voted on position changes related to gay rights or dealt with clergy who've taken stands that don't mesh with denominational doctrine. For example:

After an emotional debate, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in June against allowing ordination of gay men and lesbians as ministers.

Four Baptist churches in California were expelled by the American Baptist Churches USA for welcoming gay men and lesbians.

More than 70 United Methodist Church pastors protested the church's ban on same-sex unions by presiding over the wedding of a lesbian couple in Sacramento, Calif.

The institutions represented at this week's conference fit into a couple of categories: those whose beliefs are comfortable with homosexuality or who allow gay men and lesbians to be ordained (such as Quakers, the Unitarian Universalist Assembly, the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church and Reform Judaism), and those who are tied to denominations without the recognition or support of the denomination, such as the Catholic group Dignity USA.

The debate in the Christian world about homosexuality often comes down to dueling Bible interpretations.

Bob Miailovich, president of Dignity USA, said his group steers clear of debating Scripture because "that's sort of an endless task." However, he said that "for every passage the conservatives throw at us, there is a valid theological argument the passages mean something else."

He said Leviticus, an Old Testament book that condemns homosexuality, also forbids eating shellfish or wearing red dresses. He said "Jesus is absolutely silent on the subject of homosexuality" in the New Testament.

John Paulk, a specialist on gay issues for Focus on the Family, said God has only one image of sexuality: between a man and a woman in marriage.

"Their interpretation is out of alignment with biblical truth," said Paulk, a former gay man who is chairman of Exodus International, a group that believes people can "overcome" homosexuality. He met his wife, who left lesbianism, through the organization.

"We are communicating what the Bible says," he said. "They're misinterpreting what the Bible says."

Nancy Sutton, board president and acting executive director of Colorado for Family Values, said she would not accept an invitation to attend.

The organization's backing of the anti-gay rights measure Amendment 2 in 1992 helped forge Colorado Springs' image as a center for conservative religious groups.

"I have no desire to go and hear things that are contrary to what the Bible teaches," Sutton said. "I don't have to drink poison to know it's bad for me."

The Rev. Nori Rost, pastor of the Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, part of a denomination that ministers almost exclusively to gay men and lesbians, believes dialogue generated at the conference is good for a city known for its conservatism.

"Oftentimes, people assume the voice they hear from the conservative side of the house is the only voice of Christianity," she said. "That simply isn't so."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: A free public forum, "Spirituality and Sexuality: In the Image of God." It's part of a semiannual meeting of the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, a group of religious leaders who "affirm gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality."

WHEN: 7 to 10 p.m. Monday

WHERE: Heritage Ballroom of the Antlers Adam's Mark Hotel, 4 S. Cascade Ave.

WHO: A panel featuring Jimmy Creech, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church who was put on trial for holding a covenant ceremony between two women; Rabbi Steven Foster of Denver, active in opposing Amendment 2; the Rev. Carol Johnson, a leader in faith communities and communities of color; the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president and chief executive officer of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and founder of the coalition's black church initiative; the Rev. Bill Johnson of the United Church of Christ office in Cleveland; and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the gay/lesbian/transgender synagogue Congregation Simchat Torah in New York City.

A question-and-answer session is planned afterward.