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Keeping the Faith The Newsletter of the Interfaith Working Group
December 1998


Pastoral Letter from Rev. Paul Sherry


The Rev. Dr. Paul H. Sherry. president of the 1.4 million-member United Church of Christ, recently sent a 1,943-word Pastoral Letter to all of the more than 6,000 congregations in the denomination. Entitled "Now, No Condemnation, The Rights of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Persons in Society and their Membership and Ministry in the Church," Rev. Dr. Sherry sent the letter in order to "remind all of us that the church is to be a place where all are welcomed, where the gifts of all are recognized and received, and where the rights of all are defended and promoted."

In the letter, Rev. Dr. Sherry summarizes discussions about the role of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the church, and recent and ongoing physical, religious, and political attacks against them; he reaffirms the denomination's support for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, discussing that support at lenght in a social, political, historical, and theological context; he lists some "marvelous surprises" experienced by the denomination in the midst of internal and external conflict over sexual orientation; and both in conclusion and throughout the letter calls on the church to speak out and be welcoming.

Some of the most powerful passages include his assertion that "sometimes these anti-gay positions have been justified by flawed scientific understandings of the nature of homosexuality. Underlying many of these convictions is the assumption, frequently untested, that the Bible in general, and Christianity in particular, teach that homosexuality is a sin;" the reminder that "when so many in our society witness to the conviction that it is possible to be deeply faithful to the Bible, profoundly respectful of the historic faith of the church and its sacraments, and at the same time support the full inclusion and participation of all God's children the membership and ministry of the church. Likewise, there can be no compromise that all persons in this society must enjoy equal protection under the law;" and the conclusion that "the church's concern for the rights and dignity of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people is not a break from our past of a departure from Scripture, but is informed by our moments of greatest fidelity to the prophetic voice of the Bible and the Gospel's embrace for those who, with Christ, have been despised."

Among the "marvelous surprises," Rev. Dr. Sherry lists "the growth and vitality of many local churches that have declared themselves open to and affirming of the gifts of gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons;" and "the gracious perseverence of the United Church Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns which, for twenty-six years, has been a prophetic presence in our church, clarifying concerns, challenging stereotypes, providing leaders for every setting of the church's life, gently and persistently changing hearts and minds, providing a refuge for those who have suffered wounds of prejudice and exclusion in church and society."

Chicago Response to Fred Phelps

Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago, Rev. Greg Dell's congregation, was recently targeted by the Rev. Fred Phelps for picketing. (Rev. Dell has been charged with conducting a union ceremony.) Phelps was also on national television and in national news magazines for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Four hundred people attended an Interfaith Service for Justice the night before Phelps was to arrive in Chicago. Not only was attendance at the Sunday service three times its normal level, but 1500 people showed up to form a circle around teh church to keep the dozen or so picketers from interfering with the service. In a press conference that followed, Rev. Dell concluded, "A final word must be said about those would more politely express intolerance in the form of religious doctrine or practice or civil law. We must understand that discriminatory policies provide a seed bed from which the kungle of hate and hate crime grows. Because we do not use the words or slogans of Rev. Phelps or particpate directly in the murders of the Matthew Shepards of our world does not relieve us of the responsibility for seeing the connection between polite intolerance and the violent expression of hate and fear. None of us can be relieved simply because Rev. Phelps leaves town or particular hate filled criminals are apprehended. We must take the responsibility for the building of what Dr. King called "the beloved community."

Al-Fatiha

Thirty participants from thirteen nations attended the First International Retreat for GLBT Muslims in Boston. They later announced the formation of a new organization: Al-Fatiha, which "will work together with other organizations, gay and straight, Muslim and non-Muslim, to address the social and political issues facing GLBT Muslims around the world."

"The retreat has given us the opportunity to come together as a community in a way that was never possible before," said founder Faisal Alam. "But the GLBT Muslim movement has only just begun. Much of the prejudice and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Islamic societies is culture-based and does not stem from Islam as a religion. We want to celebrate our identity as GLBT people who are also believing Muslims. The noble and fundamental principles of respect, human dignity, tolerance, understanding, and justice, in Islam have been ignored when dealing with the issue of homosexuality and gender identity. We hope to change all that--God willing."

Marriage News

Voters passed anti-marriage constitutional amendments in Hawaii and Alaska by approximately 70% to 30%. The Alaska amendment specifically limits marriage to one man and one woman. The Hawaii amendment allows the legislature to limit marriage to one man and one woman without judicial oversight if they choose. Various news sources say that the issue is far from settled in Hawaii. Among issues yet to be resolved are 1) whether the legislature must pass another law limiting marriage, or whether the bill passed before the constitutional amendment will stand; 2) whether the legislature will pass a broad Domestic Partnership plan as suggested by the Governor; 3) whether the amendment has any effect at all on the original question of whether the state is required to provide the benefits of marriage to same-gender couples; and 4) whether the amendment could be overthrown on the same grounds as Colorado's Amendment 2. The Hawaii Supreme Court has given the Attorney General thirty days to file briefs on whether the new constitutional amendment has an effect on the disposition of the State's appeal of the Baehr case. Baehr's attorneys will have thirty days to respond to the Attorney General, who will have ten days after that for a counter-response.

The Vermont Supreme Court heard arguments in that state's marriage case. Reports have indicated that the Vermont Constitution cannot possibly be amended before 2002. In California, the question of whether the state will explicitly refuse to recognize the marriages of same-gender couples will be on the ballot in 2000.

More Anti-Gay Violence

Matthew Shepard received national attention but anti-gay violence did not begin or end with his murder. In early November, Leonord Vines of Baltimore survived being beaten and shot six times for walking down the street wearing a dress. His case was only reported in the Baltimore Sun and press releases from the Free State Justice Campaign.

Letterhead Changes

Old First Reformed Church, Philadelphia, a United Church of Christ congregation, has voted to be listed on the letterhead.

Catholic League Weighs in on Tree Decoration

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights successfully presured the operators of the ice rink in New York's Central Park into canceling a Levi Strauss-sponsored event for December 1 (World AIDS Day), which was to feature a 35-foot artificial pine tree adorned with condoms, which the League's Will Donahue called "just a way to stick it to Christians." In a Philadelphia Inquirer story, Donahue cited Levi Strauss's domestic partnership benefits and AIDS-awareness support as proof of a "gay, anti-Christian agenda." In a related story, the Dallas Morning News reported that the company has made a donation to the Hetrick Martin Institute, which provides care services to gay youth; they also have established the Dockers Khakis Youth United Against Bias Scholarships, which will send young people to a Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network conference.

Shocker in Georgia

In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia's sodomy law (challenged by Michael Hardwick, arrested in 1982 for concensual sex with another man in his home). The law was successfully defended in federal court by GA Attorney General Mike Bowers. Early this year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Robin Shahar, fired by Bowers for participation in a Jewish religious ceremony (a marriage to another woman), because it implied a sexual relationship in violation of the sodomy law. But on November 23, in a case involving a married man and his 17 year old niece, the GA Supreme Court overturned the GA sodomy laws 6-1 as a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed in the Georgia Constitution.

Catholic Bishops

The U.S. Catholic Bishops have proclaimed that Catholic elected officials must follow church teaching when voting on abortion, and that the church would remind members whether the officials complied. THis met with strong reaction in the media. Locally the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story in which local elected officials said the pronouncement would not effect the way they vote, a piece by David Boldt in which he worried about anti-Catholic backlash, and numerous letters. The fuss was mostly about the threat of elected officials being ex-communicated (which is a purely religious matter), rather than a church endorsing candidates for public office (illegal for tax-exempt organizations). Archdiocese spokesman Guy Ciarrocchi said in the Inquirer and Daily News that the Archdiocese will produce voter guides rating mayoral and City Council candidates; past voter guides have only included candidates in national races.

IWG Supporters Published in Local Papers

Rev. Victoria Weinstein amd Rev. Alfred Krass both had Matthew Shepard pieces in local papers. Rev. Weinstein's piece, "The Cold Bony Hand of Injustice Touches Us All" was in the Main Line Times and Rev. Krass's piece "Matthew Shepard and the Case for Hate-Crime Legislation" was in the Bucks County Courier Times.

Southern Baptists

The members of Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston Salem, NC, voted 90-33 to allow their clergy to officiate at same-sex unions. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, the chuch will hold a service for two lesbian members. The Baptist State Convention expelled two congregations in 1992 for pro-gay policies.

Southern Baptists of Texas held their first convention concurrent with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. According to the AP story, one reason for the split was a belief that the General Convention hasn't taken strong enough stands against abortion and homosexuality.

The Georgia Baptist Convention voted by show of hands to exclude any church "which knowingly takes, or has taken, any action to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior" according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution

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