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Mormons working to overturn Md. marriage law

Church denies direct role, but leaked email details efforts

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LDS Temple (photo from wikimedia by Joe Ravi)

Members of the Mormon Church in Maryland are working to overturn the state’s recently passed marriage equality law, according to an email obtained by the Washington Blade.

In the message dated March 29 sent to D.C. and Southern Maryland-area church members, the writer states that a coalition of inter-denominational Maryland churches has joined to place a referendum before voters in November on the marriage law before it goes into effect.

“We need to collect approximately 200,000 signatures by the end of May,” the email states. “We are looking for people to gather signatures within the LDS community.”

LDS refers to the church’s formal name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those involved with the effort have told the Blade the message isn’t an official message from church leadership either at the local level or from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, but is rather part of a local ad hoc effort to challenge Maryland’s marriage law.

The email says the “important effort” is being led by Martha Schaerr, an LDS member who’s organizing signature collection within Montgomery County and within the church. Another named organizer in the email is Teressa Wallace.

An informed source said the email was sent to the entire congregation in D.C. and Southern Maryland, which consists of between 500 and 1,500 church members and former members. According to the source, the author is Wallace, one of the named organizers in the email and wife of one of the junior pastors of the congregation.

Only 55,736 valid signatures are needed to force a ballot measure in Maryland. The stated goal of obtaining 200,000 signatures is likely an attempt to over deliver in case the validity of some signatures is challenged.

According to the email, church members interested in organizing training sessions are required to attend a 30-minute training session, “due to the stringent Maryland laws concerning referendums.”

“There will be several training sessions offered, but if transportation to them is a problem for you, a trainer would be happy to meet with you at a more convenient time and location,” the email states.

The email says the Mormon Church is “neutral on matters of party politics,” but asks that members take an active role in civic duties.

“The Church does encourage its members to play a role as responsible citizens, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections, and becoming engaged in the political process in an informed and civil manner,” the email states. “Please consider helping with this very important effort. Every signature is important and every little bit helps!”

In an email to the Blade, Schaerr said she’s organizing against the Maryland marriage law not out of any guidance or pressure from the church, but on her own accord.

“My understanding of the religious principles taught by  the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in ‘The Proclamation on the Family,’ the scriptures and numerous statements by church leaders has informed my conscience, and I am seeking to follow my conscience,” the email states.

Schaerr also expressed concern that the same-sex marriage law in Maryland would stifle those who want to speak out against homosexuality.

“I believe the Maryland law extends beyond providing rights to gay couples and actually seeks to silence religious objections to same sex relationships by changing the definition of marriage,” she said.

A history of anti-gay politics

The LDS member named in the email as leading the effort, Schaerr, who failed in her bid to win a seat in 2010 on the Montgomery County School Board, isn’t a stranger to anti-gay activism.

In 2007, Schaerr was reportedly a board member of the Fairfax, Va.-based Family Leader Network, an organization that — along with Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays — led the effort against a Montgomery County law instituting lessons for 8th through 10th grade students on safe-sex practices that included gays.

According to the Gazette, Schaerr downplayed her involvement in the lawsuit against the curriculum while pursuing a seat on the school board two years ago, reportedly saying other board members wouldn’t support efforts to change the curriculum.

In an op-ed submitted to the Washington Post at the time she was running for the seat, Schaerr disputed the notion she’s anti-gay. However, she said she disagreed that schools should teach homosexuality is “inevitably innate” because she said there are other views to the contrary — even though those views are disputed by major medical and psychiatric professional associations.

“If we’re going to talk about anal sex in a health class or a condom video, it’s irresponsible not to warn students — especially gay students — about the medical evidence showing the heightened health risks of anal sex compared with vaginal sex, even with a condom,” Schaerr said.

Wallace, the other named person in the email, was also involved in the fight against the curriculum. According to an LDS publication called Meridian Magazine, Wallace objected to the gay-inclusive Montgomery County sex ed curriculum, and attended a school board meeting while holding a sign expressing her opinion. The article is no longer on the magazine’s website, but has been reposted on a Mormon online forum.

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said she isn’t surprised that Mormon Church officials are playing a role in the effort to rescind the Maryland marriage law, but doesn’t think the LDS Church is the lead organization in the effort.

“We were not aware of this email, however the Mormon Church has been very vocal in its opposition to marriage equality so it is not surprising,” Evans said. “We have no reason to believe they are taking a lead role in efforts to overturn the Civil Marriage Protection Act in Maryland.”

Church disavows involvement

The Mormon Church is disavowing any involvement in the organizational effort proposed in the email.

Dale Jones, an LDS spokesperson, said the church has no direct involvement in the effort to overturn the marriage law in Maryland.

“While the Church’s position in support of traditional marriage is well established, the effort in Maryland is not being organized through the Church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City,” Jones said. “Members, of course, will make their own decisions regarding their involvement in local issues.”

But the message recalls the Mormon Church’s lead role in passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008. The First Presidency of the Church, or its governing body, publicly backed the initiative and reportedly encouraged members during church services to take an active role in contributing money and get-out-the-vote efforts to support the ban’s passage.

According to the New York Times, Protect Marriage, the organization responsible for Prop 8, estimates that nearly half of the $40 million in donations to the initiative came from LDS members and made up 80 to 90 percent of the volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts.

The Mormon Church has maintained that its direct involvement with the initiative was minimal — its total contributions amounted to nearly $190,000 — and church members were supporting Prop 8 on their own accord.

The Mormon involvement in Prop 8 was largely seen as public relations setback for the church in terms of public perception.

An LGBT rights supporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he’s spoken to senior church leaders and was told they want no involvement in future initiatives on marriage.

In January, a statement affirming marriage should remain between one man, one woman was reportedly read to Mormons in Minnesota as the state prepares to vote on a marriage amendment this fall. But according to Affirmation, a gay Mormon group, the statement was also read on an ad hoc basis and not under direction from church leadership.

Moreover, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — a Mormon — looking like he’ll be the GOP presidential nominee, many suspect the church doesn’t want to take an active role in politics to avoid the perception that Mormon officials will tell Romney how to govern if he’s elected.

Randall Thacker, senior vice president for Affirmation, said his group intends to oppose efforts within the church against same-sex marriage — whether they’re part of a church effort or an ad hoc initiative.

“Our main stance is that we’re very, of course, pro-marriage [equality],” Thacker said. “We will take a stand wherever we have to, including even ad hoc groups, but we typically are more focused on directing and confronting the church when it acts officially.”

The email comes just weeks before the Open Stories Foundation conference is set for LGBT Mormons in Washington, D.C., called “Building Bridges of Understanding,” from April 20 to 22. Guest speakers will include Carol Lynn Pearson, an author who writes about gays in the Mormon Church, and Mitch Mayne, a gay Mormon who serves as the executive secretary in his congregation.

The full text of the email message follows:

Attention Registered Voters who are Residents of Maryland: 

As you have probably heard, the Maryland legislature passed a same sex marriage bill last February. A coalition of inter-denominational churches throughout Maryland has joined together to try to get a referendum on the November ballot that would allow the residents of Maryland to vote on this bill before it becomes law. Martha Schaerr, who is a member of the LDS Church, is organizing signature collection within Montgomery County and within the LDS Church.

We need to collect approximately 200,000 signatures by the end of May. We are looking for people to gather signatures within the LDS community. If you are willing to help with this important effort please contact Martha Schaerr as soon as possible at [email protected] or Teressa Wallace at [email protected].

If you would like to volunteer, you must attend a 30 minute training session due to the stringent Maryland laws concerning referendums. To register for a session please contact us as soon as possible. There will be several training sessions offered, but if transportation to them is a problem for you, a trainer would be happy to meet with you at a more convenient time and location.

The LDS Church is neutral of matters of party politics. The Church does encourage its members to play a role as responsible citizens, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections, and becoming engaged in the political process in an informed and civil manner. Please consider helping with this very important effort. Every signature is important and every little bit helps!

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Virginia

Man who killed one in 2000 Roanoke gay bar shooting dies in prison

One of the worst bias attacks targeting LGBTQ community

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Ronald Edward Gay died while serving life sentences for attacking a Virginia gay bar. (Washington Blade clipping from Sept. 29, 2000)

A man sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison for the September 2000 shooting at a gay bar in Roanoke, Va., in which one man lost his life and six others were wounded, died of natural causes on Jan. 15, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections told WSLA 10 TV News that Ronald Edward Gay died while being treated at a hospital near the Deerfield Correctional Center, a state prison where he had been living as an inmate. He was 75. 

Witnesses and law enforcement officials reported at the time of the shooting that a middle-aged man later identified as Gay arrived alone at Roanoke’s Backstreet Café, a popular gay bar, on the night of Sept. 22, 2000.

According to an account by an eyewitness to the incident who spoke last week with the Roanoke Times newspaper, after ordering a beer and standing next to the bar for a short time, Gay reached into the long trench coat he was wearing, pulled out a 9mm pistol, and fired a round “straight into the chest of 43-year-old Danny Overstreet, before opening fire on the rest of the bar.”

Overstreet, a beloved regular patron at the Backstreet Café, died at the scene of the shooting. Six others, who were wounded by bullets fired by Gay, later recovered, but they and many others who were present and witnessed the shooting were left emotionally scarred, the Roanoke Times reported.

In the weeks following the shooting, news media outlets, including the Washington Blade and the Washington Post, reported findings of an investigation by local police that Gay told police he went to Backstreet specifically to target gay people because he became bitter after years of being taunted and teased for his last name of “Gay.”

The Roanoke Times reported that, among other things, Gay told police “God told him to do it” and that he once wrote that there was an evil inside of him telling him “to shoot or have no rest.”

Gay later pleaded guilty to multiple charges against him, including murder. On July 23, 2001, he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in prison for the shooting incident and the murder of Overstreet.

The Backstreet incident in Roanoke was considered by LGBTQ rights advocates and others to be one of the worst incidents in which LGBTQ people were targeted for a shooting until the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in which 49 people died and 53 more were wounded in a mass shooting by 29-year-old Omar Mateen.

Mateen, who was shot and killed by Orlando police after a three-hour standoff, told police in a phone call from inside the nightclub after the shooting began that he swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and his attack against the gay nightclub was motivated by the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The FBI later classified the incident as a terrorist attack.

The Roanoke Times reported that the shooting incident at Backstreet Café prompted LGBTQ residents and allies to gather in the days and weeks after the incident for vigils and marches. About 1,000 people walked through the streets of downtown Roanoke to honor the life of Overstreet and to urge Congress to pass federal hate crimes legislation, the newspaper reported.

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Local

Va. senator introduces anti-transgender student athlete bill

Democrats have vowed to thwart anti-LGBTQ measures in state Senate

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a bill that would ban transgender students from joining school sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Senate Bill 766, which state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) introduced on Friday, would require “each elementary or secondary school or a private school that competes in sponsored athletic events against such public schools to designate athletic teams, whether a school athletic team or an intramural team sponsored by such school, based on biological sex as follows: (i) ‘males,’ ‘men,’ or ‘boys’; (ii) ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; or (iii) ‘coed’ or ‘mixed.'”

“Under the bill, male students are not permitted to participate on any school athletic team or squad designated for ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; however, this provision does not apply to physical education classes at schools,” adds the bill. “The bill provides civil penalties for students and schools that suffer harm as a result of a violation of the bill. Such civil actions are required to be initiated within two years after the harm occurred.”

Kiggans introduced her bill less than a week after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office.

Youngkin during his campaign said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity. Elizabeth Schultz, an anti-LGBTQ former member of the Fairfax County School Board, has been named the Virginia Department of Education’s Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the state House of Delegates. Democrats still control the state Senate, and they have pledged to thwart any anti-LGBTQ bills.

“Let’s be clear: This is part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to exclude trans people from enjoying the benefits of sports like their cisgender peers,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on Friday after Kiggans introduced SB 766. “We won’t tolerate this.”

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Comings & Goings

Hazen inducted into Cooperative Hall of Fame

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Paul Hazen

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected] 

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Paul Hazen on his being inducted into the 2022 Cooperative Hall of Fame.  On receiving the honor, he said, “I am very lucky to be given the opportunity to combine my work in international development with my volunteer cooperative development work in Washington DC.”

Hazen is executive director, U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) and has devoted his career to elevating the cooperative voice domestically and internationally. U.S. co-ops include Ace Hardware, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Sunkist, REI and the Associated Press. Hazen helped establish federal legislation promoting rural co-op development.  

Prior to joining OCDC, he was CEO of Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International. During his 25-year tenure with the organization, he held key positions, including chief operating officer, vice president of public policy, vice president of member services and director of consumer cooperatives.

He worked for Rep. Al Baldus (Wisc.). He was executive director of Rural Housing Inc. in Madison, Wisc., where he developed co-ops and affordable housing projects in rural communities. 

As a volunteer, Hazen formed the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) with 12 congregations in D.C.  In 2020, CPA secured more than $18.7 million in contracts resulting in an investment of $13 million in D.C.-based small businesses owned by people of color.

Ben Finzel

Congratulations also to Ben Finzel, who was inducted into the National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame. Upon receiving the honor, he said “To be recognized by your peers is wonderful; to be honored by them is amazing. I still can’t quite believe I have done enough to be worthy of this recognition, but I know enough to be thankful and appreciative of this high honor. Thank you PRSA National Capital Chapter for including me in such inspiring company; I will be forever grateful.”

Finzel is president of RENEWPR, a D.C.-based public affairs, communications consulting firm. In 2004, he helped launch FH Out Front, the first global LGBTQ communications practice at an international firm, Fleishman Hillard, and served as its first global chair. He started DC Family Communicators, a professional networking group for LGBTQ communications professionals. Finzel served on the Victory Campaign Board of the LGBTQ Victory Fund from 2007 to 2017.

His firm is currently celebrating its seventh year in business. To recognize that accomplishment, Finzel is launching an endowed scholarship at his alma mater, Texas Tech University. His business is certified as an LGBT Business Enterprise by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

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