Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY
Valerie Williams has a passion for preaching the Christian gospel and the right of gays and lesbians to marry and live free of discrimination.
It's a message that may seem contradictory in the Bible Belt but comes naturally to Williams, the lesbian pastor at St. Luke's Community Church in Jacksonville.
"You have all these people who have longed for a relationship with Christ and decided to take a chance and reconcile their sexuality with their spirituality," she said.
It's why her Riverside congregation is growing and why, she said, churches that minister to homosexuals are becoming an increasingly powerful voice for gay rights.
"We have to be part of the civil rights movement ... to be able to educate the community and share God's good news for them," she said.
Once viewed with suspicion by the vast majority of American homosexuals, religious lesbians and gays have been coming out of the spiritual closet for decades, lending clout to their faith and giving a spiritual dimension to their struggle, scholars and ministers say.
Their involvement gives the movement new strength and vocabulary, especially when arguing for same-sex marriage, said the Rev. Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, the nation's first denomination created specifically to minister to homosexuals.
"We're the ones who are going to have to talk to religious leaders - we speak the same language," Perry said from his home in Los Angeles.
Not that it's always been that way.
When Perry founded the denomination in Los Angeles in 1968, he said many in the gay community, and especially those at the forefront of the gay-rights movement, were opposed and sometimes even hostile to his desire to help.
"People were shocked" that a homosexual was willing to come out as a Christian, Perry said. A gay publication in Los Angeles initially even refused to sell advertising space for his church.
"It was like a fist fight, sometimes," Perry said. "We had to fight our way into the Christian church and we had to fight our way into the gay rights movement in America."
The suspicion was understandable because many in the gay community had been raised with fire-and-brimstone preaching that singled out homosexuality as a sin worse than many others, said the Rev. Bruce Joffe, pastor of Christ Church of Peace, a congregation of mostly gay members and their families located in Riverside.
"They had been taught, and internalized, the belief that God hated them and rejected them," Joffe said.
Religion has yet to overcome that stigma in the eyes of many in the community, Joffe said.
"Many gays first have to be deprogrammed from the self-loathing they picked up growing up in church," he said.
It also doesn't help when high-profile anti-gay leaders end up being accused of the same homosexual acts they vilify from the pulpit, said Melissa Wilcox, associate professor of religion and director of gender studies at Whitman College in Washington.
Cases like that of Bishop Eddie Long in Atlanta - a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage now accused of having sex with young men - tends to reinforce the view of Christianity as a haven of hypocrisy, Wilcox said.
BURYING THE HATCHET?
Even so, it has become increasingly acceptable to come out as a Christian in the gay community in the 42 years since Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church. It's spawned a number of gay-focused denominations and led to the creation of gay and lesbian groups in most mainline denominations and in Judaism, said Wilcox, author of the 2003 book "Coming out in Christianity. …