While marching into the University of Kansas to receive her law degree last month, my niece Carol was met by a group of picketers with signs proclaiming that God hates homosexuals.
The picketers were from the Westerboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., whose minister, the Rev. Fred Phelps, attends the funerals of gays who have died of AIDS with signs reading, "Thank God for AIDS." (Phelps and his followers believe that lawyers are prime defenders of the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, and need to be reminded of how God really feels about homosexuals.)
Phelps represents the outer limits of anti-gay and lesbian religious sentiment, but the condemnation of homosexuals by some conservative religious groups and the ambivalence of more liberal ones may be providing unintended encouragement for violence against them.
Between 1988 and 1996, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, hate crimes against gays and lesbians grew 260%, from 500 reported incidents to 2,529--including 846 injuries and 21 murders in 1996.
These figures almost certainly underestimate the problem, because victims are sometimes unwilling to go public about the real cause of the crime and police don't always list the reason for an attack. (In Orange County, according to Rusty Kennedy, Human Relations Commission director, there were 15 such incidents in each of the past two years, down from 35 in 1993.)
Since its founding in 1963, more than 20 churches in the predominantly gay and lesbian Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) have been bombed or torched, and many others vandalized, or threatened.
Most religious groups have not done enough to stem this shocking display of hate. Even liberal Protestant and Jewish groups have mostly been sitting on the curb wringing their hands.
They have been struggling internally for several years about the ordination of sexually active gay men and lesbians and the performing of so-called covenant ceremonies for homosexual couples. Only the United Church of Christ, some dioceses of the Episcopal Church USA and the UFMCC and the Reform branch of Judaism will ordain sexually active homosexuals. Only the UFMCC will officially bless marriage ceremonies between gay or lesbian couples.
These are difficult and divisive issues for liberal Protestant churches in particular, whose memberships have declined significantly in the past quarter century. But these churches need to send strong, unequivocal messages condemning all forms of hateful speech and actions against gays and lesbians, and to become more accepting and welcoming to persons of all sexual orientations.
Some churches have done so, but they are in the minority. For example, only two of the 50 regional conferences of the United Methodist Church are "reconciling conferences," officially embracing gays and lesbians into membership. At the other end of the spectrum are "transforming congregations," who believe homosexuality is a behavior that can be altered.
At its annual meeting June 17-21 at the University of Redlands, the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodists will consider whether the conference should officially take a reconciling position or a transforming one.
The Rev. Cheol Kwak, superintendent of the Methodists' Santa Ana District, told me his denomination is attempting to counter violence against gays and lesbians through a program of study and dialogue on the issue of homosexuality "to fight fear based on ignorance." It is a commendable goal.
Last October, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral message to parents of homosexuals "Always Our Children," which urges parents to be supportive of gay and lesbian children while making it clear that sexual intercourse is permissible only within marriage. This too is a good beginning.
A national leader in the struggle to make organized religion more accepting of gays and lesbians is Laguna Beach resident the Rev. Mel White, minister of justice of the UFMCC and co-editor of "Soulforce," a newsletter and movement using the nonviolent approaches of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. White, a former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and ghostwriter for the Rev. Jerry Falwell, spent 30 years and $250,000 trying to overcome his homosexuality before going public Christmas Eve 1991.
"We don't have enemies," White explained, "we have victims of misinformation. So we bring truth and love relentlessly even to people like Phelps, Pat Robertson and Lou Sheldon."
To the Rev. Sheldon, whose Traditional Values Coalition is based in Anaheim, White issued the invitation: "Let's talk. Please listen to my evidence." Sheldon told me he didn't think much could be gained form such a dialogue because "we must be obedient to the Bible." He did, however, state that he disagreed with Phelps' "tactics and approach to the homosexual issue."
Both the Jewish and Christian scriptures are rooted in love and compassion, and in acceptance of the stranger. If not now, when?
Benjamin J. Hubbard is a professor and chairman of the Department of Comparative Religion at Cal State Fullerton. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.