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Christian churches at odds over Amendment 1 

As a child, Stan Kimer was a passive boy. During breaks from school, Stan spent time with his grandmother rather than hang out with friends his same age.

"Growing up he was different," said Fran Kimer, Stan's mother. "He wasn't a macho, masculine man. He was more into the arts. We could see it; he was kind of a sissy maybe growing up. His younger sister usually fought his battles. He didn't fight."

Today, Stan Kimer, who is openly gay, is fighting the battle against Amendment 1. He is among a cadre of faith-based leaders opposing a May 8 ballot initiative that, if passed, would encode into the state constitution a ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and other domestic partnerships.

Raised Catholic on Long Island, N.Y., Kimer left the church while an undergraduate at Georgia Tech. But at 56, he is still religious. As president of the North Carolina Council of Churches governing board, he belongs to St. John's Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh.

"I truly believe that God creates a diverse set of people, and that includes those who are GLBT," Kimer says. "I think although a man and woman coming together might be the norm, I don't think it means that's the only way and that God's intention is that 100 percent of the population end up in heterosexual relationships. We should be open, and I think scripture could be opened to have same-gender committed, affirming, loving relationships."

A religious disagreement has emerged over Amendment 1, and the divisions have deepened even within the churches themselves. Progressive denominations including Episcopalians, Unitarians, United Methodists and some Baptists oppose the amendment, while Southern Baptists, Catholics and many African-American congregations are leading the charge to pass it. (See sidebar at right.)

With the exception of Southern Baptists, which as a group vote largely Republican, two major Democratic constituencies—Catholics and African-Americans—are being peeled off from their party's stance.

And that is by political design.

"We need to be doing all sorts of things together across boundaries, and [Amendment 1] is almost an anti-solidarity issue," says the Rev. Amy Laura Hall, who teaches ethics at Duke University Divinity School. "It's an issue that's being used to divide us in a way that really benefits the fiscal conservatives—I wouldn't even call them conservatives—the fiscal radicals who have taken over the North Carolina Legislature."

In fact, in Maine, recently unsealed court documents revealed the political strategy of the National Organization for Marriage, which is advocating for a nationwide ban on same-sex marriage or unions of any kind: Dilute the Democrat Party's support for same-sex marriage by wooing away conservative African-American congregations.

"I think this is, quite sadly, not much about Jesus. This is about cynically trying to divide voters in a battleground state," Hall says. "I think Jesus wants us to have that conversation about what it means to be together and to be family. But that's not the conversation that is being promoted by Amendment 1. We're not getting to have that conversation. The proponents of Amendment 1 have us in the very divisive, politicized situation where people who ought to be in solidarity with one another are seeing one another as opponents."

Hall says she understands why Catholic bishops and some African-American ministers are aligning on family issues, particularly divorce and single parenthood—and now same-sex marriage.

"They are seeing rightly that it is extremely difficult for families to stay together in post-industrial American culture," Hall says. "They decide to be allies on this issue believing that one of the signs of families being under attack is an increased acceptance of gay and lesbian people."

Although Stan Kimer left the church, his mother has remained Catholic. Fran says she supports the church's view on marriage, but for her, freedom trumps theology. She thinks her son should have the same right to wed as her two heterosexual daughters.

"I was brought up to be very broad-minded and accepting of everybody; it's my background," says Fran, a member of Raleigh's St. Raphael Catholic Church since 1970. "I believe as long as you're a good person, which my son is—he's an excellent son—as long as you're a good person, you obey the laws, you don't steal, rob, kill, to me you should be accepted. Most of my friends are very accepting of lesbians and gays. A few of them, I just don't understand how they feel. To me they are not good Christians. They say they are, but they're not."

While many Amendment 1 backers characterize gays and lesbians as sinners, Fran Kimer says her son is, as the Catholic Church teaches, gay "by no fault of his own."

"I believe that's the way he is," Fran says. "He did not make a choice. He was born that way. He tried very hard to be straight, but he just couldn't do it. He was married before, but he just couldn't do it. He tried to please us, but he was unable to do so. He's happier now the way he is, and that's the important thing."

The state's expansive Catholic Church—both the Raleigh and Charlotte dioceses—is actively encouraging its flocks to vote for Amendment 1. The church is doing so even though the amendment—which governs secular, not religious, unions—would have no bearing on the church's prerogative to grant "sacramental" status to marriage; that status is arguably completely separate from the legal rights associated with a marriage license.

The Catholic church holds that being gay or lesbian is an orientation, not a choice. Yet because marriage in the church is reserved exclusively for a man and a woman, the church requires gays and lesbians to embrace life-long celibacy in order to remain in good standing. Sex is reserved for married couples, meaning that all gay sexual relations are considered sinful.

The Raleigh Diocese's website includes four video messages explaining the church's view on marriage and its support of Amendment 1. Bishop Peter Jugis of the Charlotte Diocese is quoted on the website saying: "Long before there was civil government, marriage existed. Marriage between a man and a woman is a basic human and social institution. Though it is regulated by civil laws and church laws, it did not originate either from the church or the state, but from God. Therefore, neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage."

Stan Kimer, who works closely with the member denominations of the Council of Churches, says he is disappointed in the dioceses' stand: "I just hope that someday there'll be change in the heart of the leadership of the Catholic church."

Fran Kimer points out that many Catholic priests have sexually abused children—acts that some bishops deliberately covered up—and many more fail to maintain their own vows of celibacy.

"You go to a church to get some religion, but you don't have to believe everything that they believe in," she said. "There are lots of Catholics like myself that do not follow explicitly the laws of the church."

Stan Kimer also argues that allowing gay marriage would not, as the anti-gay marriage contingent claims, threaten heterosexual marriage. Quite the contrary, it would solidify it. For example, to please his family and comply with societal norms, Kimer was married to a woman. Painful memories keep him from discussing the specifics of his marriage, but Kimer says a more open and affirming society that included the right to marry a same-gender partner would likely result in fewer coerced and failed heterosexual marriages.

"[Gays and lesbians] are forced by society or their religions to marry someone of the opposite sex even though it's not right for them," Kimer says. "Later on it leads to broken families and heartache when these people do come out, and it leads to unfulfillment. If gays were allowed to marry, I think then it would actually strengthen marriage because you're not going to have gay people forced into shams of marriage."

A son of a United Methodist minister, Ryan Rowe can quote Scripture with the most devout Christians. Rowe, 36, is director of faith outreach for the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families, a group working to defeat Amendment 1. Rowe says Jesus sets the bar at "love thy neighbor" and refraining from judging others. He quotes one of his favorite verses, Micah 6:8: "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

"Our primary Christian ethic is to love your neighbor as yourself," Rowe says. "No matter how deeply we disagree on theology, we should never harm anyone else in the name of that conviction."

The unintended consequences of Amendment 1 are far-reaching. "Real children will no longer be able to receive health care. Real partners will no longer receive health care. Real unmarried women will no longer have the same domestic violence protections in this state," Rowe explains. "There's a lot we don't know, but you can't debate that people will be harmed if this passes. I can't have anyone's blood on my hands in order to assert my spiritual beliefs."

Part of what's driving Amendment 1 proponents is fear of the Other—not just gays and lesbians, but secularism and nontraditional religious beliefs imported from other parts of the country, even the world. "Part of what you have is politicians, I think pretty cynically, playing on fears of some whites and blacks that North Carolina is shifting away from its traditional Christian roots," says Hall of the Duke Divinity School.

The clarion call becomes, "Look at how people moving in are changing our values," she added. "It's a falsehood in several ways. Gays and lesbians were already here."

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to care for the outcast, "the least of these." Amendment 1 backers are cleverly distorting Jesus' words, Hall says. "Many proponents of this amendment are trying to present themselves as representing the beleaguered few who are still trying to hold out on traditional family values, which are under siege by progressive New South Yankees who've come in. It's almost like a carpetbagger idea, like these people have come in and they're trying to force on us their values. So, in as much as Jesus meant for us to be on the side of the underdog, some proponents of Amendment 1 are trying to present themselves as the underdogs."

Stan Kimer and his partner of 21 years, Rich Roark, are not married and don't plan to go to another state to tie the knot. "We're waiting and hoping that we can do it one day in the state that we've both lived in for 21 years," Kimer says.

He's cautiously optimistic that voters will reject Amendment 1 in May. "I am hopeful and excited because I think as more and more people really understand what this amendment is about, what it truly means, that they're more apt to vote against it," he says. "I think it would be huge of North Carolina as a state to be one of the few states to defeat an amendment like this. I've always viewed North Carolina as kind of a beacon of tolerance and fair play in the South. I think we have a strong culture of acceptance of all people, and doing the right thing for everyone in our state. It think it would send a huge statement across our whole country if we defeat this thing."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Leaps of faith."

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