Shhhh! You Sound Like Monsters! The Key Is Trying To Appear Christian! Now Get Out There & Hate Those Fags!

Gay Rights Opponents Told: Ease the Rhetoric

from Portland Press Herald

Mike Haley encouraged pastors in Maine who condemn homosexuality to put away signs quoting Leviticus and stop using sayings like, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."

"We as Christians have to throw out that phrase. It does not translate," said Haley, a microphone clipped to his bright green shirt as a Power Point presentation glowed behind him.

Haley and Melissa Fryrear of the national conservative group Focus on the Family met with about 200 religious leaders from Maine's evangelical community last week. Their message on the issue of homosexuality was to focus on love and support as much as sin and scripture. They encouraged balance in churches, communities and public policy debates.

That mix could be key for Maine's Christian conservatives trying to win support for a November ballot question. They hope to overturn a pending state law that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

A righteous or hateful tone could steer undecided voters away, while one of kindness and compassion could help win supporters, said Mark Brewer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine.

"You have to avoid coming off in any way as hateful. If they can't do that, they won't succeed," Brewer said.

But gay-rights advocates question how much love and support conservative Christians can muster while they condemn same-sex relationships as morally wrong.

The seminar that Focus on the Family held at First Baptist Church in Portland promoted its program "Love Won Out," which paints homosexuality as a struggle like drug addiction - a struggle that people can overcome.

It's a controversial point of view gay and lesbian advocates find preposterous.

"A straight person can no more easily be counseled to a gay person, as a gay person can be counseled to a straight person. We are who we are," said Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, a gay and lesbian advocacy group.

Christian conservatives in Maine have been successful in the past by walking what Brewer described as a fine line between advocating a point and coming off as uncaring.

They've swayed voters on the anti-discrimination measure before. Mainers in 1998 sided with conservative Christians and repealed a law that would have outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians. Two years later, lawmakers did not pass the measure, but asked voters to decide. Mainers rejected it in a close vote.

The most recent dispute over the anti-discrimination law started last spring. The Legislature enacted the law, but conservative Christians gathered enough signatures to force a vote in November on repealing it.

In recent years, outspoken advocate Michael Heath, president of the Christian Civic League of Maine, has faced criticism over his tone, including an attempt in 2004 to "out" gay lawmakers.

Fryrear, of Focus on the Family, described at the seminar what she called the "Jonah syndrome," in which conservative Christians focus more on vilifying gays and lesbians and defeating them politically than drawing them to conservative churches. She talked of her own experience as a lesbian and how a church welcomed her and helped lead her away from "living homosexually."

Afterward, Colin Lemont, who is an adult leader at Calvary Bible Baptist Church in Whitefield, talked about how past referendums in Maine on gay rights became nasty and divisive. He liked what Fryrear and Haley had to say and hoped their message would help shape the next two months of campaigning.

"That really needs to become a key component through this whole debate and process," Lemont said.

Pastors talked about bringing the message back to their churches. Dan Johnston, pastor at Litchfield Community Christian Church, said older members may view reaching out to the gay community as compromising what the Bible says. But the younger members of his church are more open, he added.

Although it highlighted compassion and support for gays and lesbians, Focus on the Family did not back away from its belief that same-sex relationships are wrong and should be stopped.

Haley and Fryrear talked about how gays and lesbians could walk away from same-sex relationships and into heterosexual lives. Haley encouraged pastors to learn about the gay community and minister to it like a missionary in a foreign land.

"No one has ever walked out of homosexuality without a hand extended," Fryrear said.

But gay activists viewed the idea that a pastor could make someone go from gay to straight as ridiculous. Smith said that real compassion and love will come from Christian conservatives when they accept that men and women cannot change their sexuality and focus instead on poverty, health care and other social issues.

Jesse Connolly of Maine Won't Discriminate, the campaign to add sexual orientation to the Maine Human Rights Act, questioned how much love and support exist in an effort by conservative Christians trying to stop a law that would ensure people can keep their jobs, apartments or lines of credit.

"If there was compassion in what they talk about, they would be on our side," Connolly said.


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