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Pastors clash over rights

Several walk out as a colleague, who spoke out strongly against gays and lesbians, begins to pray.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- After he finished his speech encouraging 25 ministers to uphold "a 3,500-year Judeo-Christian principal of opposing homosexuality and lesbianism as a valid lifestyle," the Rev. D. Scott Boggs asked the assembled to pray with him.

But the Rev. Mark Peterson, interim pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, spoke up: "I will not pray with you today. I just can't pray with you. This is something that troubles me."

With that, Peterson and seven or eight others from different denominations left the meeting of area pastors at Boggs' Northside Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. In an unexpected way, they may have also given some life to the debate over whether to explicitly protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people in St. Petersburg's human rights ordinance.

Wednesday's meeting of ministers was, in essence, prompted by a request from leaders of an advocacy group, Equality Florida. The group had gone before St. Petersburg's City Council last month and asked that sexual orientation and gender identification be added to the city's human rights ordinance, which prohibits discrimination. The council, with Bill Foster opposed, voted to study it.

Boggs asked Foster to come to Wednesday's meeting to discuss how Foster's Christian faith permeates his work as a politician. Foster was greeted by protesters, and over Boggs' initial objections, invited them into the church to listen to the presentation.

After Foster and Boggs spoke, Peterson said he was upset that Boggs had declared there would be "no debate." Peterson said he had not made up his mind on whether the ordinance should be amended and added that some ministers present might support it.

The Rev. Roger Miller of Trinity United Church of Christ spoke out with Peterson, saying, "I think it is arrogant to demand we all listen and then say, 'Let's pray.' "

Boggs did not respond, but called out, "You are dismissed," as they left. He then said his prayer.

The issue is familiar to Tampa Bay area residents. Hillsborough County has struggled with including gays and lesbians in its human rights ordinance for more than a decade: adding them in 1991, deleting them four years later and then declining last year to add them again.

Adding "gender identity" is even more controversial. That would prohibit discriminating against women who dress or wear their hair in a traditionally masculine way, or against a man who dresses as a woman, for example.

In Boggs' view, it would prohibit firing a male preschool teacher who showed up to work wearing a dress one day.

Mayor Rick Baker, who does not have a vote on the council, attends Northside Baptist but did not attend the luncheon. Still, he said, he agrees with Foster.

"My stance on the issue in general -- I was pretty clear in the campaign," he said Wednesday. "I do not support a modification to the human rights ordinance to include sexual orientation."

Foster told the group Wednesday how he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior at age 8. He said he believes "every jot and tittle" of the Bible. That includes not only Old and New Testament teachings that homosexuality is wrong, but also the idea that "we should love all people and hate sin and not sit in the judgment of others," he said.

He said he prays over his packet of City Council material each week for guidance in reaching the right decisions.

"I don't think people with gender identity issues or homosexuals should be in the same class" as racial minorities, the disabled or other groups the ordinance currently protects, Foster said.

Amending the ordinance would supersede the morality of city residents, Foster said. "I don't think it's the city's role to impose on you who you associate with, or employ or house," he said.

Robin Hankins, co-chairwoman of Equality Florida, sees Foster's opposition to the ordinance as "an attack on our community."

"We want food, clothing and shelter," she said. "These are basic human rights."

Co-chairwoman Karen Doering said, "We're not asking for special rights, or even equal rights. We're not asking to be married, make medical decisions for our partners. We just want to be able to be employed and rent an apartment."

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