Gay men and lesbians call their quest for full equality in civic and religious life the last major civil rights movement of the millennium.
But recent events suggest that, at least in the nation's churches, their cause and the attendant controversies will continue into the next century.
"I think we're in the midst of a social mind change like the change of attitude toward slavery and the role of women in society," said Bishop Paul W. Egertson of the Southern California West Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"It will continue to be before the [church] community until such time that it gets resolved by a consensus one way or the other. But my guess is it's moving toward a consensus that will be different from the consensus of the past."
Perhaps. But developments in the last week suggest that advocates of homosexual rights will continue to face an uphill battle.
Two major Protestant denominations--the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and American Baptist Churches U.S.A.--handed gay rights advocates setbacks at their national gatherings.
The Baptists, who met in Des Moines, ousted five congregations, including four in Northern California, for declaring themselves "welcoming and affirming" congregations for gay men and lesbians. The Presbyterians overwhelmingly rejected a measure at their Fort Worth conference that would have been a first step toward allowing the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians.
At the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention roundly criticized President Clinton for declaring June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.
Then, three other major churches came out in favor of an initiative on next March's California ballot that would allow California to deny legal recognition to same-sex marriages if gay and lesbian couples are ever allowed to marry in other states. Backers of the measure include the California Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called the Mormons), and the Assemblies of God and the Assemblies of God Northern California/Nevada District.
Other backers include the Muslim-American Voter Assn. and 31 Baptist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, evangelical and Pentecostal congregations.
Further Debate Is Expected
In the months ahead, the ever-divisive issue of ordaining and marrying homosexuals is expected to provoke more debate at the national conventions of three other mainline Protestant churches--the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which meets in August in Denver; the United Methodist Church, which meets in May in Cleveland; and the Episcopal Church, which meets a year from now in Denver.
Even in the Episcopal Church, where liberals have had a large voice in policymaking, moves are afoot by the presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswald III, to try to head off rancorous debate at its general convention next year.
Griswald's spokesman, James Soldheim, said the presiding bishop hopes the church will give the issue a rest next year in keeping with the concept of a jubilee year of rest.
"There comes a time in which you let the fields lie fallow. You set people free. You rearrange your life," Soldheim said. "He's suggesting it may be time for us to do that as a church."
Whether Griswald succeeds remains to be seen. The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and a prime mover within the larger church for gay rights, said he expects a significant, pro-inclusion vote at the Denver convention.
In many ways, the ferment within churches and some Jewish denominations over the place and role of gay men and lesbians in their midst is an echo of their struggle in the secular world.
In the three decades since the gay rights movement became a significant force in American life, anti-discrimination laws have been expanded to include sexual orientation, and some companies and state and local governments have extended health and insurance benefits to same-sex partners of employees.
Opponents of gay rights have rallied in response, arguing that such measures amount to public endorsement of what they see as an aberrant lifestyle.
Asked about the Mormon church's support of the March ballot measure against recognizing same-sex marriages, Elder Douglas L. Callister said that traditional marriage between a man and a woman is at stake.
"It's whether or not marriage means anything at all," Callister said. "This is very painful for us. We do not get involved in these [issues] unless we think it is a moral issue, not a political issue."
"We are not anti-gay. We have many fine friends that are in the gay community and do not wish to be their adversaries," he said. "But our concern is the thing we believe we are defending--traditional marriage. This is a moral issue and we wish we did not live in a society in which we felt it was being attacked."
Religious opponents of gay rights measures cite several passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that denounce homosexual conduct as sinful. Churches simply cannot ignore those statements to accommodate current political fashions, they argue.
Swept Up in Controversies
With so many emotional and theological arguments in play, it was inevitable, some church leaders say, that churches would be swept up in controversies about the role of gay men and lesbians.
"People see this happening on the job but in . . . church we can't talk about it or deal with it. They're asking, 'What's the discrepancy there?' " said the Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson, senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of West Hollywood, a predominantly gay and lesbian congregation.
There may also be other reasons for the apparent increase in activity, she said. The death rate from AIDS among gay white men has declined dramatically, so "there may be more energy around" to pursue broader social goals, Wilson said. At the same time, she said, support for gay rights is on the upswing among heterosexuals--a statement backed by several recent opinion polls.
Finally, she said, the religious right has used the gay issue to raise funds. "That does push the other churches to declare themselves in some way and say where they are on this issue," Wilson said.