For openly gay student Justin Cotton, finding a church with an openly gay pastor was an extra blessing.
“When I came out to my parents, it was helpful for them to have our openly gay pastor to talk to,” Cotton said. He still attends Columbus Community Church in Columbus, N.Y., in Chenango County, a 90-minute drive each Sunday from Syracuse.
Cotton, 22, is a graduate student at Syracuse University majoring in public relations. He is among scores of activists who push for a change in the religious community’s acceptance of differing sexual orientation. Many gay worshippers search for accepting organizations online or through word of mouth. Some turn away from religion because of discrimination. Some, like Cotton, travel far distances to feel comfortable in their faith community.
Gay worshippers face those challenges because there is no legal requirement that a religious organization accept any person or group under the First Amendment’s protections for religion, say experts on the First Amendment. In employment and housing, for example, gay people can sue for discrimination based on sexual orientation. Not so in religion.
David Rubin, a communications law professor and former dean at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, stressed the difference between private and public institutions.
“Church groups are private activities,” said Rubin. “The state has nothing to say about which groups can join.”
Chris Hampton, a strategist with the American Civil Liberty Union’s LGBT Project, agreed. Under the First Amendment, churches are allowed to set their own requirements for membership or attendance, preventing excluded members from suing, Hampton said in an email interview.
But many churches in the Syracuse area welcome openly gay members.
At the University United Methodist Church in Syracuse, for example, the Rev. Craig French boasts about the rainbow flag — the symbol of the LGBT community — hanging outside the church’s front door. “Some people recognize it,” French said. “But others don’t, and when they ask what this is about, we tell them.”
In the last eight months, French said, his church has made a public declaration that they accept openly gay members. “It’s a recent movement in the United Methodist Church,” French said. “and we’re willing to say policy at the national level needs to change.”
The First English Lutheran Church in Syracuse also accepts openly gay members. In the past, said Pastor Craig Herrick, the church accepted gay members simply because “we didn’t ask questions.”
But, he said, “Now we have folks that are openly gay and quite clear about that.” He added, “In my children’s generation, it will be a non-issue.”
To worship, SU student Cotton confesses that he takes the extra time for his 90-minute drive to his church because it’s accepting to all members. The church’s message, he said, is more about personal growth than hell and damnation.
“The scripture readings,” Cotton said, “are very much so based on bettering yourself as a person rather than you going to hell for all your sins.”
(Kathleen Lees is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)