Facing the prospect that Alaska's same-sex marriage ban could eventually be tossed by the courts as unconstitutional, one of the state's leading advocates of "biblical marriage" says it's time for conservative evangelicals to bury their animosities toward homosexual couples.
Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, one of dozens of similar groups around the country promoting social-conservative causes, said recently that he shared blame for "marginalizing" the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. He acknowledged opening a "hornet's nest" two years ago during the run-up to the city vote on Proposition 5, which would have banned discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
The proposition lost, but not before Minnery and his side raised ire with an animated commercial playing on a stereotype: It showed a hairy man in a short pink dress, high heels and lipstick applying for a job at a daycare center, with a narrator's voice saying the owner would face jail under the proposition if she chose not to hire the man.
That assertion was false and ignored the right of the day-care center to hire the best qualified candidate and enforce a dress code whether the ordinance passed or not. At the time, Minnery defended the ad on First Amendment grounds and admitted the character was "cartoonish." Opponents said the ad was "offensive, stigmatizing and distorted."
While Minnery says he's still not apologizing for that commercial nor "taking anything back," he now acknowledged "a lot of folks were hurt by the campaign." With growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in society at large, Minnery urged conservative churchgoers to change their tone as well, even as they remain disapproving.
At town hall meetings earlier this month in Anchorage and Palmer and an appearance on talk radio, Minnery says conservative evangelicals should change their side of the dialogue. He titled the town hall meetings, in which he was on stage with four invited national speakers, as "Loving My Gay Neighbor."
"We're going to see a kinder, gentler Jim Minnery now?" asked radio-show host and former Democratic legislator Ethan Berkowitz when Minnery phoned the KFQD studio earlier this month to announce the upcoming town halls.
"I don't know," Minnery said. He was still committed to a version of marriage presented in the Bible, he said: one man, one woman.
But on the day he phoned into the Berkowitz and Bernadette Wilson talk show, May 7, Minnery noted how quickly the marriage equality movement was growing.
"Alaska is just one of just four states that's not under a lawsuit with a federal judge getting ready to eliminate our marriage amendment," he said. "A lot of people would say it's just a matter of time here. I would say in the next year, that our marriage amendment would be under assault and maybe ruled as unconstitutional."
As it turned out, Minnery didn't have long to wait. Five days later, five gay and lesbian couples, some married in other states, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, challenging the 1998 state constitutional amendment that declared marriage could only exist between a man and a woman. The case will be heard by the chief federal judge in Alaska, Ralph Beistline, 65, a George W. Bush appointee.
Alaska Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, said Minnery and his supporters appeared to be struggling more than most people with the idea of marriage equality.
"They're doing way more soul-searching about how to approach this and how to cope with the world that's coming than the rest of the world -- I think the rest of the world has largely accepted it," said French, a candidate for lieutenant governor who supports the state Democratic platform calling for same-sex marriage in Alaska. French attended Minnery's town hall at East High School and ran into him a couple days later having a beer at a West Anchorage bistro.
"He wasn't conceding," French said.
"I don't really see much of a change right now," added Jake Hamburg, who married his partner in British Columbia where same-sex marriages are legal. Hamburg also attended the East High town hall.
"I was struggling to understand how they could claim love and grace, yet don't want to allow us the freedom to marry the person that we love," Hamburg said.
Josh Hemsath, Alaska representative of the Pride Foundation, which provides grants to organizations that promote gay rights, said Minnery's second town hall, in Colony High School in Palmer May 10, "seemed a bit more conciliatory and a bit more compassionate" than what he might have expected.
While some parts of the faith community have embraced marriage equality, Hemsath said he also appreciated the more narrow opening from Minnery.
"I'm more than happy to welcome other faith leaders like Jim Minnery to remind folks to treat others as they'd like to be treated," Hemsath said. "I don't know that I would've felt comfortable 10 years reaching out to the leader of a group like this."
Minnery said he's happy in his modestly recast role.
"You're not called to worry and to fret -- at the same time, we're called to be faithful in terms of defending and standing up for those things that we believe are right and truthful," he said in an interview. "Right now we just have our hands full slowly educating the church and the culture on why marriage is important and why you can support traditional marriage without being identified and labeled as a bigot."
At the town halls, there was no talk of homosexuality being a "lifestyle choice," an assertion many in the gay community find offensive by rejecting the notion that a person's attraction to a same-sex partner is innate. Rather, Minnery and the other speakers said, it's a sin like any other -- a desire that should be overcome by will.
"Every single human who's reached puberty deals with sexual immorality," Minnery said. "For some, it's homosexual, for some it's heterosexual. So get over it -- it's not anything unique. ... Everyone is born with some struggle -- it's called a cross to bear."
As state after state adopts same-sex marriage, Minnery says he has no plans to give in. It's similar to what happened when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. At the time, he said, it seemed like the freedom-of-choice movement had won a permanent victory, but that looks less certain every year as states successfully pass restrictions on abortion.
That could be the outcome with same-sex marriage too, Minnery said, as new generations take the place of older ones.
"We might lose this one politically, legally, but it doesn't change what the truth is, just how were are going to work in this environment," Minnery said.
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