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Countering the noise
Religious leaders focus on response to anti-gays in the pulpit
Columbus--“We let them have their time. Now it’s time to take off the gloves,” said the Most Reverend Phillip Zimmerman of Columbus.
Zimmerman is the presiding bishop of the Reformed Catholic Church of Ohio and a gay man. “Them,” according to him, are those who call themselves religious leaders, but who get their power from exploiting fear of homosexuality and LGBT people.
“Why are we allowing them to be on the stage when the play is over?” Zimmerman asked rhetorically.
He was among 63 clergy who gathered in Columbus this week, representing most mainline Protestant denominations, Catholicism, Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, and unaffiliated sects from all areas of Ohio except the southeast.
The September 25 forum was convened by Equality Ohio with funding from the Human Rights Campaign at King Avenue United Methodist Church.
The goal was to get affirming religious leaders to come together to counter the anti-LGBT propaganda of the so-called religious right.
“The names of Rod Parsley and Phil Burress came up often,” said Equality Ohio spokesperson Andrea Wood.
Burress is the head of Citizens for Community Values of Sharonville, near Cincinnati. He is behind nearly every anti-LGBT action in the state, including the 2004 marriage ban amendment.
Parsley is a powerful central Ohio megachurch pastor, fomenting homophobia from the pulpit.
“Parsley is a fear merchant,” said Zimmerman. “He sells hate and fear. Most people buy into fear because it is easier than being courageous.”
Zimmerman added that in 2004, LGBT-affirming religious leaders were silent because “we underestimated how strong they [the religious right] were. Now we know.”
The meeting was closed to outsiders and media observers because some attendees were there without permission from their congregations or denominational hierarchy.
The group decided to rally around passage of the Equal Housing and Employment Act when it is introduced in the state legislature next spring. The measure would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Ohio’s anti-discrimination laws.
According to Wood, the attendees also committed to convening a prayer breakfast, sign a letter of support for the EHEA, increase their involvement in Equality Ohio’s lobby day in May, start a statewide speakers’ bureau, and sponsor a statewide tour of the film For the Bible Tells Me So beginning in January.
Invitations were sent to clergy who participated in the No Longer Silent prayer service after this year’s lobby day, and by word of mouth. It is hoped that the group continues to grow.
Zimmerman recalled that a meeting of affirming clergy was called two years ago, but nothing much came of it.
“People gathered, felt good, went home, and there was no change,” he said.
“It’s different this time. The people who were here are workers. The message has gotten through because we don’t want another Issue 1 [ban amendment] situation, where we got trounced.”
Another participant was less enthusiastic.
“There was not a whole lot new brought up,” said Rev. Steve Moultin of the First Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green. “My purpose [for going] was to get to know more people.”
Moultin’s daughter Kim Welter is director of Equality Toledo.
“What was discussed was helpful,” said Moultin. “Whether or not it was effective depends on what happens after this.”
“The biggest problem here in northwest Ohio is that we have clergy who are generally supportive [of LGBT people], but their congregations are not, so nothing is brought up for fear of risking the position or splitting the denomination,” Moultin said.
Asked if that issue or strategies to deal with it were brought up, Moultin said, “No. That wasn’t the focus of the gathering.”
Moultin and Zimmerman agree that though people signed up to be part of the specific tasks, no leaders emerged from within the group, likely leaving Equality Ohio to continue to oversee the activities.
Zimmerman said the group needs to tackle what he called a three legged stool propping up anti-LGBT hatred in order to succeed.
“The first leg was when they said homosexuality was a psychological illness,” said Zimmerman. “That’s gone now.”
“The second leg was that homosexuality was a criminal act,” Zimmerman continued. “But the courts got rid of that one.”
“Now all that is left is that homosexuality is a sin, and we are slow to overcome that as ministers,” Zimmerman said.
“It’s bullshit, but people believe it because there are no other reasonable voices telling them otherwise,” Zimmerman said.
“By nature, [clergy] are humble people, but there’s such a thing as righteous indignation,” Zimmerman said, suggesting that clergy need to feel empowered to use their anger at the anti-LGBT religious leaders in more positive ways.
According to Wood, presenter Bishop Yvette Flunder of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, who is African-American, noted the absence of black men at the discussion as a challenge that must be overcome.
Wood observed that there was only one African-American man in the room, though there were several women.
Wood said black churches being used by the religious right as wedges to bring about political gain in the 2004 election was also discussed.
“Flunder said LGBT people need to reconnect with African-American ministers,” said Wood. “We didn’t create the divide, but it’s our burden.”