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December 2, 2011

Church billboards fan anti-gay sentiment

Brunswick, Ohio--A duo of churches in northern Ohio have LGBT communities in two cities up in arms over anti-gay billboards.

Back in September, the Church on Strayer, a suburban Toledo megachurch, purchased nine billboards reading, “Being Gay is not a gift from God--Forgiveness, Love, & Eternal Life are.”

The nine billboards were purchased in response to a single pro-gay one that the Central United Methodist Church in Toledo put up in April. Central later replaced their original “Gift from God” billboard with one pointing to their inclusive policies, and that they welcome all sexual orientations and gender identities.

“My first thought was, Wow, nine billboards! That’s quite an investment,” Rev. Bill Barnard of Central told the Toledo Blade. “We just have one, and that’s an investment for us. They must be really serious about this.”

Now the Cleveland area has a similar situation on its hands, although less organized and on a much smaller scale.

Southwest Baptist Church in Brunswick, whose property abuts Interstate 71, posted a sign facing the freeway saying, “Homosexuality is sin . . . but Christ can set you free,” along with the church’s website and the biblical verse “John 8:36,” which says nothing about homosexuality but does say, according to the King James translation, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

On the church’s website, there is a link on the front page about the billboard.

The church describes itself as “a Bible based local church focused on seeing souls saved, people baptized and being ministered to in a local church environment.” While the church espouses extremely conservative theology, however, the messages on its website are surprisingly mild on homosexuality.

“The truth is, we love you . . . we really do! And God loves you too. In fact God loves you just as you are,” it reads in the website section about the billboard. “But God loves us too much to leave us the way we are. He knows of the destructive nature of sin.”

It goes on to say, “If you or someone you love is struggling with same-sex attraction and wants help, contact us using the form below.” They also direct readers to Exodus International, the leading “ex-gay” group in the country, many of whose former leaders have since denounced it. Major mental health groups have warned that “ex-gay therapy” can be harmful.

Rev. Don King of Hope Lutheran Church, a member of the Cleveland LGBT Center’s Spiritual Leaders Group, noted that the organization is split on responses to the billboard.

“We are not of one mind at all. You can spend a lot of time and money if you go chasing after these things,” he said. “We will always have billboards or signs or things to respond to.”

King will not be able to attend the group’s next meeting, despite the infrequency with which he misses Spiritual Leaders Group gatherings on Thursdays. However, he expects the members to discuss the billboard.

He said that some thought they should raise money to put up counter-billboards, adding that a United Church of Christ congregation in the area was considering that move.

King, however, points out that the Brunswick billboard is far less hateful than others posted by anti-gay churches around the country, and it is on their property.

Other information indicates that pro-gay people have posted inappropriately negative comments on the church’s Facebook, as comments on a post about the death of a family member of one of the churchgoers.

While he refused to speak on behalf of the Spiritual Leaders Group, King’s message was one of tolerance and patience.

“My take on it, I don’t recommend that we call more attention to the billboard than is already there,” he said.

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