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[whitespace] Council of Churches says so-called 'defense of marriage' initiative is un-Christian

Willow Glen--The Rev. Vaughn Beckman, executive director of the Council of Churches of Santa Clara Valley, is a man on a mission. In an effort to garner opposition to the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, the state-wide organization which he heads is publishing and distributing a "study guide" on the initiative--at a cost of $25,000. And Beckman wants his 100 Santa Clara Valley congregations, which have stated a commitment to social-justice issues, to raise the majority of the money.

Judging from his progress thus far--he's collected $6,000 in just one week--his goal isn't as farfetched as it may sound.

"I was hoping we would raise $5,000, and we already passed that after two phone calls," says Vaughn, the first and only openly gay director of the council in the country. "I'm certainly not thinking that we can raise the total amount, but with the progress that we've made already--it's been so beautiful and exciting. It makes me wonder if maybe we can. I'd be proud to see the churches in this valley finance the booklet."

Sponsored by Sen. Pete Knight (R-Palmdale), the Defense of Marriage Act would ban same-sex marriages throughout the state, and prohibit California from recognizing same-sex marriages performed legally in other states. The initiative is slated for the California ballot in March 2000.

The Knight Initiative has some local "Open and Affirming" congregations--which welcome gays, lesbians, bisexuals and their families--up in arms.

"I come from a faith perspective which claims that we are all children of God," says Rev. Rebecca Kuiken, associate pastor at Stone Presbyterian Church in Willow Glen. "Out of that Gospel perspective, I look at an initiative that bans same-sex marriage as a barrier to people who were created in God's image and who are attempting to bind themselves in a covenant relationship with one another. I see a ban on same-sex marriage as being contrary to the will that I believe Jesus was all about proclaiming."

The Gay Ministries Committee of the Santa Clara County Council of Churches was one of several groups that met on Feb. 20 at the Billy de Frank Gay and Lesbian Community Center to discuss the Knight Initiative. Several of the groups are printing brochures and other informational literature in opposition to the initiative. The next town hall meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday March 13 at the Billy de Frank Center.

"We can't sit around waiting for the religious right to condemn us anymore," Beckman says. "We need to go out and make positive changes. The fundamentalists are really wounding themselves as they go farther down the road of exclusion."

Beckman is no stranger to the religious right. Before becoming an ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ, he was a Baptist minister and a graduate of Jerry Falwell's university and seminary. After struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his calling, he left the ministry for 10 years.

"I couldn't belong to a ministry that was opposed to my sexuality," he says.

In June '97, he was named to his director's post--but only after being turned down by more than 20 churches in the area. Beckman suspects his being openly gay had a lot to do with that.

The progressive Council's Gay Ministries Committee has been at the forefront of promoting gay rights, calling for lifting the ban on gays in the military in '93, sponsoring meetings of Open and Affirming congregations in the area, and supporting Domestic Partners Registry. The current hot topic in the committee is the right to marry.

"I think the issue for us is why should the word 'marriage' have any modifiers at all?" says Rev. Robert Hawthorne, a local retired United Methodist minister and founder of the Gay Ministries Committee.

On Jan. 16, in an act of mass ecclesiastical disobedience, Hawthorne, along with 94 other United Methodist ministers, co-officiated at the holy union of Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, a lesbian couple and longtime members of St. Mark's United Methodist Church of Sacramento. The Methodist Church banned marriages between gay and lesbian couples last year.

"We need to offer equal rights to equally committed people in our world, and if a couple is willing to be committed to each other then I don't think it's right for us to say we're not going to support them in our society," says Rev. Catherine Foote, associate minister at First Congregational Church in Willow Glen.

Although she wasn't at the Jan. 16 ceremony in Sacramento, Foote, a United Church of Christ minister, does officiate commitment ceremonies between same-sex couples.

"[The Knight Initiative] is built on fear rather than understanding and compassion," Foote says. "It's a matter of respecting each other and dealing with each other as human beings rather than as categories."
Jessica Lyons

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