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May 19 , 2000

Amid arrests, Methodists vote 2 to 1 to keep their stands against gays

by Eric Resnick

Cleveland--Although nobody offered a motion to split the denomination, the 8.4 million member United Methodist Church remains everything but united over acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.

The church’s quadrennial General Conference ended May 12 at the Cleveland Convention Center. Policies on gays and lesbians dominated the agenda of the ten-day gathering.

Prior to the conference, the conservative faction Good News sent a video to all the delegates warning that a schism or a substantial defection of members and clergy would occur if the delegates voted to drop a statement, enacted in 1972, that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

By May 9, it was believed that the Faith and Order Committee was going to recommend that the statement remain in the church’s governing Book of Discipline. It appeared that prohibitions on same-sex unions and ordaining gay and lesbian clergy would also remain.

That prompted anger from Amar, a coalition of pro-gay Methodist groups. In protest, Amar members and members of Soulforce, a group seeking social justice for gays and lesbians, blocked a driveway exit from the center on May 10, resulting in the arrest of 191 demonstrators.

The next day, the conference voted on the Faith and Order Committee’s reports and petitions.

The events of that day led to the arrests of an additional 29 protesters and ultimately, no changes in the church’s positions on homosexuality.

Rev. Philip Wogaman of Washington, D.C. rose to give the minority opinion, opposing the committee’s recommendation that the 1972 statement remain.

"Again and again we have learned as a church that we were wrong about women, about slaves, about racial minorities, about monarchy, about feudalism," he said. "Will we one day have to hold a service of repentance for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers?"

Speaking in favor of the recommendation, Roger Elliott of North Carolina said, "We don’t believe that homosexuality, when practiced, is a greater sin than others, but we do believe that it is a sin. For us to acquiesce in any way on this issue would be to sacrifice our integrity and accommodate to our culture."

Rev. Grayson Atha of Columbus told the delegates that he had to take the conference’s message to his church, with 50 gay and lesbian members.

"I would like to be able to not have to say to them, one by one, as I look them in the eye: The church says you are not compatible with Christian teaching."

Unidentified speakers interrupted the conference from the floor. One gay speaker accused the primarily heterosexual delegates of "putting up welcome signs for your own comfort, and putting up walls to us."

The speeches continued. Amendments were offered by gay and lesbian supporters to attempt to soften the absolute language in the Book of Discipline as they tried to maneuver around the conservative caucus’ hold on the legislation.

An amendment was proposed to change the phrase "Although we do not condone homosexuality" to "Although many do not condone the practice of homosexuality." Another amendment was offered that would have allowed a difference of opinion on what scripture says. Both attempts failed.

At 11 am, a vote was taken on the committee’s recommendation to have no change in the language that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching. Like the two smaller measures before it, and nearly every vote following it, a two-thirds majority voted to keep the church less inclusive of gays and lesbians. The vote was 628 to 337.

As soon as the results were known, a group of 50 Amar delegates, led by Rev. Greg Dell of Chicago, Randy Miller of California, and Susan Laurie of Erie, Pa., assembled in the center aisle and silently marched toward the hall’s stage, where Bishop Dan E. Solomon of Baton Rouge, La. presided.

Two bishops, Joseph Sprague of Chicago and Susan Morrisson of Schenectady, New York were among the protesters, some of whom had participated in the Soulforce demonstration the previous day.

Other Amar members raised their hands silently around a balcony surrounding the conference floor, and nearly one third of the delegates stood in silent protest of the vote.

As the 50 Amar delegates on the conference floor got into cross formation, Jean Smiles of Seattle stepped up onto the balcony rail, and with outstretched arms and clenched fists began to yell to the delegates.

"I am a lesbian," Smiles said. "I attend a Methodist church and I love God!" She continued to beg the delegates to be more inclusive, and called for an end to the protests.

Two members of the media thought she was going to jump or fall and pulled her off the rail.

"I started to watch the votes," Smiles said later. "The professor from New York [Traci West, a Christian ethics professor] had just spoken about women being silent and having no authority over a man. I grew up in a Plymouth Brethren church where women were not allowed to speak. When I saw Amar, it really got to me. I lost control. I just wanted to tell them that that they shouldn’t have to do this. I didn’t want to see anyone else get arrested."

After a recess and negotiation with presiding Bishop Solomon, 27 Amar protesters were allowed to remain on the floor in their protest, as long as they were silent.

The Amar delegates tried again to maneuver a pro-gay vote, offering amendments that would create a four-year moratorium on implementing the prohibitions against gays and lesbians. All attempts failed with the same two-thirds margins.

Delegates also voted 640-317 to retain a ban on ordaining "practicing homosexuals."

After lunch, the delegates returned to take up the matter of same-sex unions. The 27 protesters remained in the silent cross formation, at times kneeling with their right arm on the shoulder of the person in front of them.

The Amar coalition attempted to offer an amendment saying that same-sex unions "should" not be performed, instead of "shall" not be performed. The attempt failed.

Around 2:00 pm, the delegates voted to keep the current prohibition on same-sex unions, again by a two-third majority, 646-294.

As the vote was announced, the 27 Amar protesters rose and began to walk up the steps onto the stage, singing "We Shall Overcome." A third of the delegates on the floor also stood at their seats, and roughly one third of the bishops on the stage stood, joining the protesters in song.

Solomon regained order and allowed the protesters two minutes to address the convention. Randy Miller spoke for the group.

"We violated our covenant to stay silent because this church has broken its covenant with us," he said. "We are not strangers to this church, but we are not welcome."

Miller told the delegates, "You will force us now to be forcibly removed to symbolize that broken covenant, and you will know that we do not stand alone."

Solomon said, "I bow my head in prayer. I cannot witness what is about to happen."

With that, Cleveland police appeared and escorted the 27 protesters outside where paddy wagons were waiting. The 27 were joined by Rev. Janet Ellinger and Rev. John Ellinger, both district superintendents, who left their delegations to join the protesters, making a total of 29 arrests.

Some of those arrested had been arrested with Soulforce the previous day, including Bishop Joseph Sprague of Chicago.

Those arrested were charged with disrupting a lawful meeting, a fourth degree misdemeanor, and later arraigned. They each paid $100 fine, $55 court costs and $5 to cover their bond.

After the arrests, Amar delegates tried one last maneuver. They attempted to amend the incompatability statement to say homosexuality is incompatible with "some" Christian teaching. This, too, was defeated.

With that defeat, Steve Franz of the Oregon-Idaho conference took the podium proclaiming he was no longer a Methodist, then tore up his conference credentials, threw them on the altar and walked out.

Throughout the conference, gays, lesbians and their allies, identified by rainbow stoles they wore over their shoulders, were confronted outside the hall by conservatives shaking their fingers in their faces, calling them names, and accusing them of destroying their religion.

Marilyn Alexander, director of the pro-gay Reconciling Congregations, explained why her group and her allies were willing to continue to engage the church on inclusiveness, when they were being rejected by overwhelming majorities.

"There are many who will leave," she said. "But there are more gay Methodists born every day, and this is about them."

"Business as usual is over," said Rev. Greg Dell, who was also arrested both days. Saying that Good News was engaged in "denominational cleansing," he added, "This church cannot stop the birth of GLBT babies."

At a press conference called later that day, Maxey Dunham, a representative of the Good News coalition, was asked if the clergy that were arrested should expect more discipline from the church. Dunham was among the advocates calling for the heresy trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech for performing a same-sex union.

"They should expect to be treated the same way anyone else would," replied Dunham.

"This is the first time in the United Methodists’ 250-year history that church authority has called on secular authority to silence its own members," added Dr. Terry Norman of Kansas City, Mo., a gay former pastor who retired rather than lose his orders when he came out.

Norman added that few Methodist churches are conservative enough for the church’s right wing, and he feels they will find issues to silence them on, too. "They are trying to change [Methodism] into a right-wing denomination that is out of character with its history."

During the remainder of the ten-day conference, the delegates debated and passed several motions to strengthen the church’s commitment to diversity and equality with regard to race, disability, and color

 

Soulforce founder declares that Methodist church ‘has become evil at its core’

Dialogue is over, White says

by Eric Resnick

Cleveland--"This marks a new moment," said Soulforce founder Rev. Mel White, reflecting on the dramatic activity surrounding the United Methodist General Conference held in Cleveland May 2-12. "We’re no longer interested in their dialogue. We’re interested in their votes."

On May 10, outside the conference, 191 Soulforce volunteers blocked a driveway to the convention center. They were arrested, charged, and found guilty of persistent disorderly conduct, a minor misdemeanor with a fine of $100 plus $55 court costs.

All 191 pleaded no contest. This was a plea agreement with prosecutors, who originally charged the demonstrators with aggravated disorderly conduct, a second degree misdemeanor. All who were arrested paid their own fines.

"We came here to shut them down," said White. "What this church is doing is criminal and evil. There’s no way to reconcile with evil."

White said on May 12, as the convention ended, that the United Methodist Church has been taken over by religious fundamentalists and it was clear that the delegates were not interested in creating justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.

"This action signals a new militancy and a beginning of the end of the debate," said White, noting that the United Methodists have been debating GLBT inclusion for nearly 30 years. "It is as much our moral responsibility not to cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good. The United Methodist Church has become evil at its core."

White said that Soulforce had attempted to change the delegates’ votes for six months prior to the civil disobedience.

"We wanted to work with Amar," said White, referring to a coalition of pro-gay Methodist groups working to persuade delegates. "First we sent each delegate a letter and a copy of my book Stranger at the Gate at a cost of $12,000. Later, out of courtesy to Amar, we sent each delegate a copy of the video There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, costing another $12,000."

"You can see by the votes that the delegates were not listening," White said. Delegates voted two to one to retain church laws against homosexuality, same-sex unions, and gay ordination.

The video features Methodist minister Rev. Dr. James Lawson, who was arrested with Soulforce. Lawson is an African-American who was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and a staunch advocate of civil rights. Lawson asks conventione delegates to be reasonable and open to inclusion of gays and lesbians.

The video also features Rev. Lewis B. Smeades, a top Christian ethicist for 30 years, who has made his own journey from intolerance to acceptance of gays and lesbians.

"Smeades is one of their most influential voices," said White.

Twenty years ago, Smeades was also one of the first to call AIDS God’s punishment of gays. But Smeades has changed his mind and now says the churches are interpreting Romans and the writings of Paul "all wrong."

"I am a minister," begins Smeades, "in as conservative and evangelical church as you can find in the United States."

"The church’s using the Bible as the reason for the exclusion from this fellowship of gay and lesbian Christian people is all wrong," says Smeades. "It’s biblically all wrong. And not only that, it is cruel, mean, and devastating."

White announced that Soulforce will continue its campaign for gays and lesbians with its next action, against the Presbyterian church’s convention in Long Beach, California in late June.

"The Methodists were first," he said, "because they were the first in the string of conferences and also, they are the largest of the three denominations to be targeted this year."

"The Methodists," said White, "have a liberal history, but have been the worst in terms of heresy trials and defrocking people."

In one of those trials, Rev. Jimmy Creech of Nebraska was defrocked for conducting a same-sex union ceremony. He was among the 191 arrested on May 10.

"I’m feeling good about the witness that was made here today," Creech said. "My case has drawn attention to the church being willing to prosecute clergy who minister to all people."

Other Methodist laity and clergy were among those arrested May 10, including two bishops and Arun Gandhi, grandson of Indian independence leader Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi. Some supportive delegates left the floor in unison to go outside to pray and sing in support of those being arrested.

Other supportive delegates stood silently at their places inside the hall, in solidarity with those being arrested.

"This movement is grieving," said Creech. "The United Methodist Church will inevitably change, but the resistance is intense."

"This was a major eruption in the history of human rights in America," said Rev. Phil Lawson, following his arraignment.

"We are the church," he continued, "For us it represents a new day, a new age, a new eruption in the forces for life."

"But," Lawson noted, "for those aligned with the status quo it means nothing. They aren’t paying attention."

The only interruption in the arraignment process involved questions about the treatment of Sara Anne Sherrard, a pre-operative transgender woman from Charlottesville, Va.

During his arraignment, Michael Gray of Dayton asked to speak to Judge Sean C. Gallagher about the whereabouts and condition of Sherrard.

Gallagher stopped the proceedings and ordered the bailiff to bring Sherrard to the courtroom. "Bring her here now," he said, "I don’t want them playing games with any of these people."

Sherrard assured the court she was treated fairly, despite the misunderstanding over her gender. Transgender people keep their gender at birth on all official documents until they complete reassignment surgery. Because of this, Cleveland police treated Sherrard as a man instead of a woman.

"The police took my wig and my jacket, so all I had on was a bra," began Sherrard. "The police then brought me a tunic and took me from the women’s section to a cell by myself in the men’s section."

"I know I could make an issue of this," said Sherrard, "but I really don’t want to. It wouldn’t look good for Soulforce or the Cleveland Police Department, and I didn’t want this action to be about me. It needs to be about what we came to do."

The last of the arrested and arraigned returned to the hotel at 7:50 pm and joined the rest of Soulforce in a very emotional decompression session.

"Can you imagine riding in a paddy wagon with Arun Gandhi?" said Judy Osborne of Seattle.

Gina Grubb of Knoxville, Tenn., is a police officer and could not be arrested. She told the group, "It makes me nervous to be in a room with so many convicts."

Grubb drove Gandhi to the airport in time to make his next speaking arrangement. She told the group how moved she was that "he had never been arrested before," and that "he made the choice to have his first arrest here with us."

Soulforce continued demonstrations throughout the conference, including prayer vigils, silent protests, and leaflet distribution to those who walked by the convention center.

"There have never been arrests at a United Methodist conference," said White.

White took credit for inspiring the leaders of Amar to stage their own act of civil disobedience on Thursday, May 11 leading to the arrests of 29 delegates inside the conference. "We taught them how to do this for themselves," said White.

Soulforce will be demonstrating at the Presbyterian and Episcopal conventions this summer and at D. James Kennedy’s Reclaiming America for Christ conference in September.

A Soulforce committee has already been organized to arrange for a demonstration at the next United Methodist conference, in Pittsburgh in 2004.


Central Ohio AIDS Walk funds up 12 percent

by Anthony Glassman

Columbus--AIDS Walk 2000 has surpassed previous attendance records, and garnered a twelve percent increase in raised funds from last year.

The May 7 walk raised more than $111,000 in pledges turned in at the event, with more expected to come in from walkers who couldn’t attend, as well as corporate matching funds. This is up from $99,000 collected last year.

Part of the reason for the increase in donations and attendance is due to the focus, according to walk co-chair Joe Rotella. Previous walks focused almost exclusively on the Columbus area, while this year’s event expanded its scope to encompass all of Franklin, Delaware, Licking, and Union counties, as well as ten AIDS service organizations.

"People live with AIDS throughout central Ohio and I’m excited to see AIDS Walk expand from one county to four," Rotella wrote in a statement to the press. "There’s a spirit of cooperation among the ten benefiting agencies that constantly reminds me we are doing the right thing for the community: we’re raising awareness and we’re raising funds."

The funds came from pledges to the walkers and corporate sponsorships, but the rest was due to a new feature: the Awareness Festival, occurring just prior to the walk. It included a multi-faith remembrance service, a Central Ohio AIDS Memorial Quilt display, a DJ, and several local celebrities and bands.

A children’s tent was also provided for participants, with face painting, games, and educational activities.

Over $30,000 in cash, goods, and services were donated to the event, included sets of airline tickets to be awarded to the two highest-grossing walkers.

The walk had more teams and corporate sponsors than any previous year since its inception in 1995.

The future of the walk was in doubt when, last September, the Columbus AIDS Task Force withdrew from the event, leading many to believe it might be weakened, or not happen at all. Those doubts, however, proved unfounded.

"It was almost as if the walk ran itself," said Rich Kaffenbarger, a member of the planning committee. He attributed the success of the event to the dedication of those planning and executing it.

"I made a personal commitment to guarantee the success of AIDS Walk. That’s why I became involved," he said, noting that with the withdrawal of CATF, the other service organizations in the area worked harder than ever to get the event off the ground.

There was also a sense of duty among those who walked, according to marketing chair Roger LaGreca, who said they surveyed walkers for the first time this year.

"The response was overwhelming," LaGreca said in a statement. "People said they walk because a friend, family member or partner died of AIDS, because Jesus would, or simply because they care."

A great deal of preparation went into the walk, coordinating with city services to set up the event, keep it safe for all involved, and clean up afterwards.

"It’s a lot of work, but the results are worth it," said Logistics Chairman Tony Mullins. "I’m already thinking of ideas for next year’s AIDS Walk."

 


Two cities’ P-FLAG chapters honored at HRC dinner

by Anthony Glassman

Cleveland--The Akron and Cleveland chapters of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays were honored at the Human Rights Campaign’s Cleveland dinner May 13.

The Akron chapter was founded in 1981 by Ann Beebe, followed four years later by the Cleveland chapter, founded by Jane Daroff and Jes Sellers.

HRC awarded the two chapters and their boards the prestigious Equality Award, given to those who have done the most for the cause of gay and lesbian equality.

Previous recipients of the award include the American Civil Liberties Union-Ohio, the Cleveland Lesbian-Gay Center, and the United Church of Christ.

In keeping with the theme of the award, the Federal Club, the major-donor organ of HRC, donated two tables’ worth of tickets to North Olmsted High School’s gay-straight alliance, Spectrum.

Spectrum is currently lobbying the North Olmsted school board to take more positive steps toward handling anti-gay harassment in the district.

The evening started with a VIP reception in which a number of other awards were given, and the dais was a parade of activists and politicians on the local and national levels.

There were silent and live auctions of everything from fine art and airline tickets to sitcom scripts and dinners at local restaurants.

The dinner itself, followed by dancing, was emceed by Carole Chandler and Marshall McPeek, newscasters on WKYC Channel 3 in Cleveland.

Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer keynoted the event, bringing a rousing ovation from the audience, who were also treated to songs from Noreen Lehmann, and later from the Coastliners, the North Coast Men’s Chorus’ smaller ensemble, who emerged from backstage bedecked in tuxedoes and Carmen Miranda hats.

A thousand people attended the $150-a-plate dinner, raising money for HRC, the country’s largest gay and lesbian civil rights group.


Clinton, drug firms move to help in African AIDS epidemic

by Anthony Glassman

Washington, D.C.--President Bill Clinton issued an executive order May 10 to promote the availability of promising treatments for AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, one day before the United Nations announced that five pharmaceutical companies have offered to slash the prices of their AIDS treatments to developing countries.

Eighty percent of cases of HIV infection reported worldwide are in Africa, as well as 83% of AIDS-related deaths, prompting international efforts to curb the spread of the disease ravaging the continent.

Clinton’s action came after Congress removed similar language from a trade bill opening the United States market to clothing from Africa and the Caribbean.

The executive order states that the U.S. government will not impose restrictive patent laws on drugs going to Africa, as long as the countries receiving them use them as part of a comprehensive program to check the spread of the disease and "provide adequate and effective intellectual property protection."

According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who cosponsored the original amendment to the trade bill, the order conforms to World Trade Organization rules giving countries flexibility in addressing health concerns.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott criticized the president’s methods.

"There seems to be a pattern now of him doing executive orders that exceed what he should be doing," Lott said. "He doesn’t make the laws."

A day before the executive order was issued, five major drug companies drastically cut the prices of their HIV treatments for sale to third-world and developing nations, cutting the cost of treatment 70 to 85%.

Since most of the medications have only been around for a few years at most, they are still being sold under the drug companies’ patents, leading to criticism that their high prices put them out of reach of the poverty-stricken in developing countries, where AIDS has hit the hardest.

Goehringer Ingelheim (Germany), Glaxo Wellcome (Britain), Roche (Switzerland), Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck and Co. (U.S.) are participating in the voluntary program. None of the companies communicated with each other about the level of their respective price cuts before the announcement by UNAIDS, the United Nations AIDS task force. Had the companies conferred, it would have opened them to charges that they violated anti-trust laws.

"Other pharmaceutical companies have also expressed interest in cooperating in this endeavor," UNAIDS said in a statement.

Given the level of poverty in the affected countries, however, even such drastic price reductions might not help much.

"While the cut in treatment cost is a big step forward, there is still a huge gap in terms of it making a huge difference in the lives of infected persons," said Chinelo Bob-Osamor, a spokesperson for the Nigerian Health Ministry. "Ultimately, it is still about who can afford to pay for treatment. I’m afraid not many people can."

Even the wealthiest countries in Africa can’t afford to supply medication to all of their infected citizens. South Africa, for instance, could spend its entire drug budget of $300 million and only cover a fraction of those who need treatment, said Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

Some officials, however, see the decrease in expense as leading to more realistic stop-gap measures, such as providing AZT to pregnant women to prevent them from infecting their children. One quarter of the women in South Africa are HIV-positive, and the government could not previously afford this treatment on such a large scale.

"We don’t have all the answers yet, but we are encouraged that at least we have a framework to discuss these questions," Merck spokesperson Jeffrey Sturchio said.

 

 

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