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Religious group merges with gay rights task force

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Religious group merges with gay rights task force

1,400 'welcoming' congregations are represented -- hopes for 10,000 in 5 years

San Francisco Chronicle

- Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

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 the statement.

With the backing of the task force, which is known for its grassroots organizing, Voelkel will work to expand the number of congregations taking those steps.

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."

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