Colorado Springs Gazette, 24 Aug 99

Religious leaders say gays welcome

Forum's message: End oppression

By Eric Gorski / The Gazette 
Story editor Sue McMillin

A group of liberal religious leaders, taking a stand that clashes with the beliefs of many of their colleagues and some of their congregants, declared Monday night in Colorado Springs that gays and lesbians don't need to change to be welcome at God's table.

The message was delivered before a mostly supportive crowd of 175 people at the Antlers Adam's Mark hotel. The room was decorated with the brightly colored stoles of gay and lesbian Lutheran pastors who resigned or were removed over disagreements with church leadership.

The forum organizers, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Equal Partners in Faith, a pro-gay religious group, chose Colorado Springs as a meeting site because of its reputation as a center for conservative religious groups that bring a distinctly different view to the gay-rights debate.

Despite the sensitive subject, there was little rancor. About eight Focus on the Family representatives occupied one corner of the room, identifiable by not joining in the applause.

One speaker was briefly interrupted by a man standing at the back of the room who shouted, "Blasphemy! Blasphemy! Repent before the Lord returns!" The man then walked out of the room. That was as divisive as it got.

The forum is part of the semiannual conference of the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, an interfaith group of gay-friendly faiths, denominations and groups. The roundtable, which numbers about 40, is hammering out organizational matters such as drafting a mission statement and strategy on touchy subjects such as same-sex marriages. The conference ends today.

The meeting comes as several Christian denominations are grappling with difficult issues ranging from whether noncelibate gays should be ordained to whether ministers should be allowed to officiate same-sex marriages.

This weekend in Denver, delegates to the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to maintain the denomination's stance forbidding the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

The Rev. Jimmy Creech, an ordained elder with the United Methodist Church who was acquitted in a church trial after performing a marriage-like ceremony between two women, used Monday's forum to exhort Christians to take the lead on gay-rights issues. He said it was the church's responsibility to do so as the "principal carrier of blame for the oppression of gays and lesbians throughout history," dating to the 13th century.

"It's important for us to acknowledge that and say we've been wrong, and we need to end the oppression," he said.

Rabbi Steven Foster of Denver, who was chairman of the chief opposition group to Amendment 2, the Colorado anti-gay-rights measure, said he believes gay-rights supporters have erred in presentation, especially in light of trying to influence heterosexuals.

"We have framed it as a gay-rights issue," he said. "I truly believe this is a civil-rights issue. We have to make the highway broader and make more opportunities. It's much easier for people to be involved in a civil-rights issue than a gay-rights issue."

Originally, a question-and-answer session at the forum's end was to be conducted in an open-microphone format. But organizers instead asked crowd members to scribble questions on index cards read by a moderator.

Laura Montgomery-Rutt, national organizer for Equal Partners in Faith, said the change was made in part because of the presence of the Focus on the Family representatives, which she said "might intimidate some people from asking questions." At least one question from a Focus official was read during the brief session. John Paulk, a self-professed former homosexual, said during a break that he could relate to the stories of pain and struggling he heard. He heads an organization that believes homosexuality is a choice.

"It's just the conclusion I came to was different," he said. "I don't want to oppress someone's right to be gay if they want to be. But there also must be equal validity to the testimony of people who've come out of homosexuality."