President Barack Obama stirred a heated national debate when he became the first American president to publicly endorse gay marriage May 9, invoking mixed reactions from religious leaders in Gilroy and across the country.
Several Gilroy pastors came out predictably strong in their opposition of Obama’s recent speech, standing firm in what they see as an attack on God’s intention for traditional marriage.
Eric Smith, head pastor of South Valley Community Church in Gilroy, lamented Obama’s new public support for gay marriage. Smith has publicly taken a stand against homosexuality for 30 years, and is frustrated with the direction the country is headed in light of the president’s change in conviction. In 2008, when running for election, Obama said he personally believed marriage was between a man and a woman, but that states are entitled to making their own laws regarding gay marriage.
“As a pastor, I need to address the moral issues of our country. I try not to get political – I don’t preach on healthcare reform – but this issue of marriage, family, children, sexuality, that’s my domain,” Smith said.
Smith said that homosexuality is a “devastating lifestyle” and while people have the right to their own lifestyle choices, he is strongly opposed to gay marriage.
“There’s some kind of an insatiable need from the homosexual community to find total and complete acceptance and equality from the heterosexual community. Until that is achieved, they won’t stop,” Smith said.
Smith acknowledges that there can be devastating problems associated with heterosexual relationships too, and doesn’t see any difference between homosexual “sin” and other sins he preaches on – including adultery and divorce.
“I’m trying to affirm that as Christians, we’re not trying to discriminate. But to redefine an entire institution that has stood the test of time for thousands of years, the impact of that will be far reaching,” he said.
Smith thought Obama’s speech smelled of a calculated political move designed to distract people from the issue that they care the most about this election – the economy.
“It was a shrewd move to shift the focus of the election from the economy to this fairness issue,” Smith said.
A New York Times and CBS survey conducted May 14 found most Americans would agree. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed said they thought Obama’s change in stance was politically motivated, while 24 percent said he spoke out mostly because he thought it was the right thing to do.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made his stance against gay marriage known before, but has not yet directly responded to Obama’s position.
Most people polled in the survey said that Obama’s new stance would not impact their vote, but of those who said it would change the way they vote, 26 percent said they are less likely to vote for Obama as a result, while 16 percent said they are more likely to.
Pastor Malcolm MacPhail, senior pastor of New Hope Community Church in Gilroy, who said he was an active proponent of Proposition 8, which passed in 2008 to define marriage in California as between a man and a woman, also expressed sadness for Obama’s stance.
“He’s claiming to be a Christian, but that’s not the Christian view, so there is some type of contradiction there,” MacPhail said.
MacPhail encourages his congregation to vote with Biblical principles and traditional values in mind.
“As a pastor, I am to be a watch guard of what the Bible says to the people,” MacPhail said.
Not every church leader shared the same feelings of opposition toward gay marriage.
Father Dan Derry of Saint Mary Parish in Gilroy said that even if the president protected homosexual marriage by law, it wouldn’t effect his personal convictions about marriage.
“I have no problem with it at all,” Derry said. “This is a civil matter, and should remain a civil matter, and every citizen has the same set of rights.”
Derry said he suspects some church leaders will decry this new development as a terrible thing, but he still hopes the religious community will treat everyone with respect and dignity.
“Some people get so taken with the religious aspects of the issue, they forget that homosexuals are still citizens entitled to basic human rights,” Derry said.
As for the Catholic Church, Derry said leadership is divided on the issue. He did not say that the Catholic Church should sanction gay marriage, but said they shouldn’t spend their time attacking the union of gay couples.
“The real focus should be on how to be a loving person,” he said.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement on May 10 criticizing Obama’s position and applauding North Carolina for their recent amendment that defined marriage between a man and a woman.
Annie Tobin, art teacher at Gilroy High School and lesbian, said she has mixed reactions about Obama’s speech. She partly is thrilled that he stood up for gay rights, but also worried about the political backlash that might come from it.
“Finally somebody with that much power has stood up for equal rights for gays and lesbians,” Tobin said. “But how far can you go before committing political suicide?”
But then again, Tobin wondered if maybe his stance could draw more people to the polls who support gay rights, and who may not have otherwise voted.
“Those people who are going to be against him are going to be against him anyways,” she said.