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Mar 9 2005
Chapel Hill, NC: Gay rights draws anti-gay crowd

Gay rights draws anti-gay crowd


CHAPEL HILL -- Hazen Ham wouldn't utter the F-word. Not in front of a packed audience at Town Hall. So he asked Mark Kleinschmidt to say it, but the councilman didn't take the bait.

"I'd like you to say it," Kleinschmidt told Ham on Monday night, adding later that "as a former debate coach, I didn't really understand the device of getting me to say 'fag.'"

Ham balked and hedged, refusing to say the word as he moved on from the most bizarre and awkward exchange of the evening.

Ham was trying to distance his organization, Called 2 Action, from groups like the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, which proclaims on its Web site that "God hates fags." Called 2 Action does oppose gay marriage rights, Ham said, and wants gays and lesbians to give up their "lifestyle." But, he said, it is not a hate group.

"We've been hiding, and we've allowed people who say, 'God hates homosexuals,' to speak on our behalf," Ham said at a Monday public hearing to discuss three council legislative requests that would expand or protect gay rights.

"The fact of the matter is God Almighty loves homosexuals."

It was the one point on which nearly all of the 250-plus people crammed into Town Hall could agree, on a night when the majority of speakers were Christians debating God's stance on homosexuality.

They cited scripture and their own prayerful reflection to plead their cases, but most people argued that homosexuality and Christianity are not mutually exclusive.

"I consider myself deeply religious and deeply moral," said Darlene Nicgorski, a former Catholic nun and a lesbian, her voice shaky with emotion.

"I have a partner of 18 years. I am here taking care of her 87-year-old mother. Is that not love and family values? That's Christianity. That's morality. That's religious. You don't have a corner on that."

Many more like Nicgorski followed, sharing their personal experiences to urge the council to stand up for three state legislative actions that would defend gay rights.

The council obliged in a unanimous vote.

Local lawmakers will be asked to support the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which says same-sex marriages in other states can't be recognized in North Carolina; support adding sexual orientation to the state's hate crimes law as a protected class; and oppose a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Speakers like Ham said extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples would shake "the foundation of our society."

"It is a godly institution," Ham said. "It is not a right. It's something God Himself put on this earth."

But Paul Lindsay, a member of Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill and a married man for almost 50 years, said he believed everyone should be allowed to enjoy the blessings of marriage.

"I think marriage is a great institution," he said. "I think it contributes to the stability of our community. It contributes to the raising of children. I believe it's only fair for the benefits of marriage to be extended to everyone."

Kleinschmidt noted that he and his council colleagues aren't pushing for legalized gay marriage in North Carolina, at least not yet.

Their two requests related to gay marriage, he said, are to get rid of a "discriminatory law" and prevent another one from being entered into the constitution.

"They're the side that's being aggressive," Kleinschmidt said. "We're the ones being defensive."

The constitutional amendment has 84 sponsors, almost half of the 170 members of the General Assembly. An amendment will require a three-fifths vote in both chambers.

Kleinschmidt, who is gay, said the impact of the constitutional amendment wouldn't just be symbolic. It could jeopardize Chapel Hill's current program that provides benefits to "domestic partners."

He called the proposed amendment "extraordinarily broad" and "frightening."

He said he wasn't sure whether the strong turnout among supporters of gay rights Monday night would have any bearing in Raleigh.

Kleinschmidt said Ham and his followers are trying to paint themselves as moderates by distancing themselves from groups that use epithets. He hopes lawmakers see through it.

"They recognize they have a serious credibility problem," Kleinschmidt said Tuesday. "They are trying to show they're the middle ground. But they're saying, 'I think you're immoral, I think you're a sinner.' The subtext is, 'You don't belong in my society.' In a civic context, what's more hateful than that?"

Chris Turner, one of about 100 members of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ who took a bus from Raleigh to attend the hearing, said "it's not about hate or love."

It is about whether society and Christians adhere to the Bible, he said, which Turner and his congregation believe condemns homosexuality.

He called Binkley Baptist Church, a congregation known for its liberal social views, a "dead church" after testimony from one of many Binkley members Monday.

"You can't use the words of Christ to promote an agenda," Turner said. "If Jesus' words don't come to life, you must be a dead church."

Kleinschmidt called it "un-American" to expect a personal religious view to be written into the state constitution.

"I came here because I love Chapel Hill," said the Rev. Ron Wood, pastor of Celebration Assembly of God on Weaver Dairy Road and a member Called 2 Action.

"I'm an ordained minister, too. But I'm not one who believes I have the right to disregard the word of God. I feel incapable of teaching others that they can take a path that leads to their own destruction."

Several speakers pointed out that Wood, one of the few Called 2 Action members who also was a Chapel Hill resident, didn't represent the majority view in the liberal-leaning town.

Local activist Ruby Sinreich asked those in the audience who were both members of Called 2 Action and a Chapel Hill resident to raise their hands. Just a few went up.

"I think my point is made," she said. "The people of Chapel Hill have shown over and over that they very much support the rights of gay people."

"I'm just really touched by the number of people who came in support of the council supporting pro-GLBT legislation," said Win Chesson, secretary of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender-Straight Alliance at UNC.

Groups like the GLBTSA have been at a state of heightened mobilization since the Feb. 25 early-morning assault on Franklin Street of a gay student that some have labeled a hate crime.

"It's always hard to hear people tell you you don't deserve to be an equal citizen," he added, a multi-colored flag wrapped around his waist. "But it's also really important to hear so many different people saying that's unacceptable."

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