Portland, Ore. is known for being a progressive and tolerant community. Voters elected an openly gay man to serve as mayor of this city in 2008.
This is also the city, however, where FOX News personality Bill O'Reilly helped to launch his career and where today Lars Larson, the nationally syndicated right-wing talk show host and anti-gay rights activist, makes his home base. Oregon voters, led by a coalition of conservative evangelical churches (called the Oregon Family Council) and cheered on by talk radio, passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2004 by a margin of 57% to 43%. Hate crimes against the LGBT community are not unheard of in progressive Portland. In fact, just over a week ago two men holding hands were attacked while walking across a Portland bridge. Witnesses to the crime did nothing to intervene. What role does religion and talk radio play in promoting hatred and even violence toward gays and lesbians?
A week after the attack thousands of Portlanders descended on the Hawthorne Bridge, where the incident took place, in an event billed as "Hands Across Portland." The purpose was to show support for the victims of this hate crime and to reclaim Portland from those who, like Larson, attempt to remake the city in their image of intolerance. Larson once referred to U.S. Congressman Barney Frank as a "fag" on air and has actively used his program to campaign against hate crime laws. He has even been an active fundraiser for anti-gay rights organizations.
The Community of Welcoming Congregations (CWS), a coalition of 114 congregations in Oregon that welcome gays and lesbians, joined in the "Hands Across Portland" event. "Our member congregations provide sanctuary for those seeking a spiritual home", says the Rev. Tara Wilkins, CWS Executive Director and United Church of Christ minister. "But it's not enough to create safe space. We encourage our leadership to take a message of hope and love into the streets".
Christians have a special responsibility for speaking out against such bias crimes. Holy Scripture has been misused to dehumanize gay and lesbian people and that sinful behavior has helped to create a climate where violence against one who is "other" is acceptable. Even today those in the far Religious Right -- in groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council -- promote active discrimination against the LGBT community nationwide by fighting for the reversal of federal hate crimes laws and other civil rights protections using language that is comparable to language the Nazi Party used to dehumanize Jews. That same message is repeated day after day on talk radio. These different groups do share responsibility for the increase in hate crimes against gays and lesbians over the years.
The Southern Poverty Law Center noted in 2010 that same sex marriage "may well be legalized across the United States, whether through the actions of the courts or the legislatures. But that doesn't mean that the hardcore of religious resistance is about to disappear." They further noted that gays are the main target of hate crimes in the United States and that:
... hatred and bullying of those perceived as homosexual will continue into the foreseeable future. Although leaders of the hard core of the religious right deny it, it seems clear that their demonizing propaganda plays a role in fomenting that violence ...
Two Portland men were attacked just over a week ago -- for holding hands -- in the dark of night. Those who attacked them broke the law to be certain but they also committed a sin against God. That darkness was overcome this Sunday evening when thousands of Portlanders lined the Hawthorne Bridge, hands held high, in support of compassion and love.
Soon the question of marriage equality will return to the ballot box in Oregon as Basic Rights Oregon prepares to launch a statewide initiative campaign to overturn the constitutional ban on same sex marriages. This time conservative opponents of equality will be met with a coalition that includes progressive and moderate clergy -- myself included -- who believe and preach that God created humanity with a richness of diversity that only serves to better us as a people.
In the midst of these public campaigns, let us pray for an end to violence and for civility in our debates.