NATION Religious group merges with gay-rights task force

The task force is looking to boost its membership to 10,000 congregations.
The gay-rights movement has found God.
After decades of working to change secular institutions, the national movement, which has largely convinced society that homosexuality is neither a mental disorder nor a crime, is focusing on what its leaders say is their last, and biggest, challenge: convincing believers that it's not a sin.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the country's oldest gay-rights organization, has merged with a religious organization representing 1,400 Protestant congregations that unconditionally welcome gays and lesbians.
Over the next five years, the task force wants to increase membership in the Institute for Welcoming Resources to 10,000 congregations.
"It's a very proud and happy day for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which is based in New York. "We see this as a critically important step in reclaiming the language of faith and moral values from those on the right that attempt to hijack faith and moral values."
What merger means
The merger means organizations working for acceptance of gays and lesbians in several denominations -- including the Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran churches -- will be part of the task force.
"This is the first of its kind in terms of scope and collaboration," said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, who heads the Institute for Welcoming Resources, which is part of the task force.
The move comes two months after the first national Black Church Summit in Atlanta, which created a network of clergy to counter discrimination against gays and lesbians in black churches across the United States.
And last summer the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., the nation's largest gay-rights organization, started a religion and faith program.
When they join the welcoming and affirming network, congregations must do three things, Voelkel said. First, they have to sponsor conversation among congregants about gay and lesbian issues in society and Scripture. Then, church members will write a public statement welcoming and affirming gays and lesbians, and finally a church council or the entire congregation will vote on the statement.
Working on expansion
With the backing of the task force, which is known for its grass-roots organizing, Voelkel will work to expand the number of congregations taking those steps.
The impetus for political organizations formally embracing religious causes was the November 2004 election, when voters in 11 states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, with backing from many churches and religious groups.
"We saw anti-marriage legislation in so many states passing, with basically glee, that we realized we formally needed more religious outreach to churches, clergy, synagogues and mosques," said Sylvia Rhue, director of religious affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition, an African American gay-rights organization.
That resulted in the Atlanta summit in January, attended by 44 clergy members from across the country, including the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and Bishop Yvette Flunder of San Francisco's City of Refuge United Church of Christ in the South of Market neighborhood.
"In the past, we were trying to fight religious wars with secular tools," Rhue said. "Now, we're fighting with religious tools."

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