Quiet Convictions 

Liberal Atlanta congregations mostly mum on gay marriage

On a recent trip to North Georgia, Alan Thornell passed a church in Rome. He couldn't help but notice the sign out front. It read, "Gay marriage is an abomination."

For Thornell, director of Georgia Equality, the state's pre-eminent gay rights group, those five words suggest more than just the Christian right's vitriol for what's become his organization's leading cause.

Thornell is well aware that conservative churches bused hundreds of members to the Gold Dome as part of huge rally in early March to convince legislators to put an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment on the November ballot. It's the type of solidarity one expects from right-wing believers. As a result, Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike have felt the pinch of phone calls, e-mails and letters from conservative Christians promising a one-way ticket home from the Capitol if they vote the wrong way on gays.

But churches on the other side of the gay marriage controversy have been relatively quiet on the topic, even as some of their leaders have spoken against the proposed constitutional amendment. There's no sign plastered in front of a liberal church that says gay marriage ought to be an equal protection right -- not as far as Thornell has seen, anyway.

The silence of the churches on the left has created the illusion that this issue is a struggle between the God Squad and secularists. It's not.

Liberal church leaders do have reasons for being cautious about speaking in favor of gay marriage, though. Even as traditionally progressive, mainline protestant churches -- Presbyterian, Episcopalian and United Methodist -- affirm the worth of their gay congregants in God's eyes, they still haven't worked out an institutional position on those congregants' right to be married (or, for Presbyterians and Methodists, to be ordained).

Those churches also must answer to governing bodies that make any kind of action -- especially controversial action -- painfully slow.

Rev. Sharon Taylor, minister of Ormewood Park Presbyterian, says her faith just isn't built for speed. It took about 25 years of debate, for example, for the church to decide that women should be ordained.

What action she could take to support gay marriage would have to be carefully crafted to stay within the rules of her faith's local governing body. "When you do things as a community, it takes longer," Taylor says. "But being in a community is how God intends for us to live. It's a richer experience than doing things on your own. Most Presbyterian pastors don't act like the Lone Ranger, because they're not."

The metro organization of Presbyterian Churches does have its own legislative lobbyist. But he's charged with persuading lawmakers on less controversial issues, such as preventing cuts to Medicaid. His job description seems to reflect the consensus among local, progressive religious leaders on bringing the institutional weight of the church to bear on gay marriage: Stay out of it.

But, like Democrats, liberal churches risk losing their identity and attraction if they work too hard to hold the center.

According to Thornell, there's currently a sentiment among liberal church leaders that it's a waste of time to preach to congregations that are largely in favor of gay marriage -- or to bother lobbying liberal legislators already working to defeat the anti-gay marriage resolution.

If Thornell is right, those liberal leaders are overlooking the obvious. Clearly, conservative churches aren't toiling to sway conservative legislators; they're trying to influence lawmakers on the fence. Shouldn't liberal church leaders follow suit?

Rev. Guy Kent, a 62-year-old pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in Candler Park, hosts a gay congregation called Gentle Spirit Christian. His church also provides a home for the (nominally illegal) needle exchange group Atlanta Harm Reduction. But Kent hasn't preached about gay marriage, let alone sent buses of congregants to the Capitol to lobby legislators. He admits to being somewhat ambivalent about calling the union of two gays "marriage."

Kent cautions that one of the reasons it's difficult to organize liberal-to-moderate congregants is because they don't all think alike.

One minister at a prominent Atlanta church, who asked not to be named, says she has attended rallies that Georgia Equality has held for religious leaders. She also has spoken from the pulpit about "what I believe God says about loving everybody and being inclusive."

But she's not going to organize her church or speak on its behalf. The pastor sets the tone, but if the congregation is in the middle, as hers is, it dictates how far out on a limb a minister ought to go. Even her church's leadership doesn't agree on gay marriage. To her, it only makes sense to bring the church into an issue if the entire church is behind it. But, she says, "You can make a lot of difference behind the scenes."

At least one local church is weighing in on the anti-gay amendment, even as it carefully avoids coming out in favor of gay marriage.

Within Central Presbyterian Church, the "session" -- a group of 45 elected and ordained leaders -- has passed a resolution to urge the General Assembly to vote against the anti-gay marriage resolution. It isn't an endorsement of gay marriage, which would have landed the church in hot water with its governing body, but it is the most high profile political action taken by a local, mainline congregation on gay marriage.

It reads: "The effect of the [Legislature's] proposed amendment will not really be to protect marriage, but rather to institutionalize discrimination. ... We ... affirm that all human beings are brothers and sisters, and that God's will is for us to love one another and to treat one another with justice, generosity and compassion."

Rev. Margaret Aymer, a recently ordained minister at Central, makes herself especially visible at gay rights rallies. Unlike most ministers, she's not shy about speaking out in favor of gay marriage.

"As an African-American woman, for me, it's a civil rights issue," she says. "I always wear my collar when I speak out."




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