New York Times, August 24, 1999

Religious Coalition Plans Gay Rights Strategy

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- An unusual coalition of religious groups representing Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons and Muslims is trying to forge a major public voice in support of gay rights to counter the efforts of religious conservatives.

Leaders of the groups -- some of them caucuses working within denominations, others not recognized by officials in their faiths -- gathered Monday morning for the first of two days of strategy sessions in a downtown hotel, to discuss how and when their coalition, the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, should speak out.

Organizers deliberately chose to hold the meeting in a region that is home to many conservative Christian organizations.

"So much of the battle against us is religiously based," said Robert Miailovich, president of Dignity USA, an organization that supports gay Catholics. Miailovich, one of about three dozen participants at the meeting, added that there was "a great deal of religious response to the religious attacks; you don't have to be an atheist to respond to the religious right."

Great potential influence

In a nation where polls regularly show religious faith to be widely held, the potential for religious leaders to influence public opinion on gay rights is great, and it is an important theme at this meeting.

Laura Montgomery Rutt, national organizer of Equal Partners in Faith, a liberal religious organization that helped found the round table, cited the support of liberal religious leaders for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

"The religious support for civil rights in any kind of movement is crucial," Ms. Rutt said.

In a session at the meeting that focused on same-sex marriage, Evan Wolfson, a lawyer with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said he expected the Hawaii Supreme Court to decide soon whether homosexuals should be allowed the right to civil marriage there.

Wolfson said that religious groups that support gay rights needed to educate the public and also help "beat back the backlash" of political measures at the state level that bar same-sex marriages.

Not discouraged

The round table, which includes representatives from People for the American Way and a few other secular liberal organizations, was organized in July 1998 as a project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's policy institute and Equal Partners in Faith. The policy institute's director, Urvashi Vaid, said the organization reflected a recognition that there was "this whole pro-gay religious movement in every denomination, in every faith."

Nonetheless, the period since its formation has not been a happy one for those who favor a greater role for gay and lesbian worshippers in organized religion. In August 1998, bishops representing the communion of Anglican churches worldwide, which includes the Episcopal Church, passed a resolution strongly critical of homosexual activity.

Then, in March, the Rev. Greg Dell, a United Methodist minister in Chicago, was suspended after an ecclesiastical court convicted him of violating his denomination's rules by officiating at a same-sex union. And in July, the Vatican ordered the Rev. Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, a priest and a nun who had long worked with gay and lesbian Catholics, to end their ministry.

But in interviews, participants at the meeting, which is being held at the Antlers Adams Mark Hotel, said they were not discouraged by those events.

King, Gandhi are role models

"When you stand up, you run the risk of being fired on," said the Rev. Patti Ackerman, an Episcopal priest in Patterson, N.Y., who is also a spokeswoman for Integrity, an organization for gay and lesbian Episcopalians.

Citing Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she added, "We have excellent role models."

Ms. Ackerman also mentioned the murders of two gay men, Matthew Shepard in Wyoming last October and Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama in February. But "God has given us the courage of strength," she said.

Much of the discussion Monday morning turned on basic questions like how far the interfaith group should go in responding to an event in a particular denomination.

For example, several participants said that while the round table would have been right to voice general support for the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Methodist minister in Omaha, Neb., put on trial in 1998 for officiating at a same-sex union, it should steer clear of debating internal Methodist politics and rules.

Creech, who was narrowly acquitted in that trial but whose bishop declined to reappoint him as a pastor, is a guest at the meeting, one of six speakers at a public event Monday night, a panel discussion on the theme of sexuality and spirituality.