For the fourth consecutive year, gay-rights activists are organizing a presence at the Southern Baptist Convention to protest anti-homosexuality rhetoric by the denomination.

This year’s demonstration will contrast with a strong push promoting traditional families at the SBC annual meeting, scheduled June 17-18 in Phoenix. A “Kingdom Family Rally” on the eve of the convention will set the stage for introduction of a new SBC standard for Christian families, described as the “Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family.”

Mel White, executive director of Soulforce, a religious organization that supports gay rights, wrote SBC president Jack Graham May 7 requesting a meeting to discuss their differences.

White told Graham he was “stunned” to learn that fellowship had been withdrawn recently from a Southern Baptist church in North Carolina because it baptized two gay men. “Could that be true?” he asked. “Has it come to this? Isn’t it time to consider embarking on a bold new dialogue between us?”

White asked Graham to consider asking a small group of Baptist leaders to meet with Soulforce representatives some time between Sunday, June 15, and Wednesday, June 18.

Graham’s predecessor as SBC president, James Merritt, rebuffed similar requests to meet with White the last two years, prompting Soulforce to escalate protests at last year’s SBC annual meeting in St. Louis. A dozen Soulforce protestors were arrested initially on felony charges inside the convention hall while attempting to disrupt the meeting. Those charges were later reduced to misdemeanors. Another 38 protestors were arrested for trespassing while trying to enter the building when the convention was in session.

In his letter to Graham, White implied similar action this year, saying he hoped a meeting of the two would “preclude the need for any direct action at all.”

Gay-rights protests have become a staple at the SBC annual meeting since Soulforce sponsored its first non-violent demonstration at the 2000 gathering in Orlando, Fla. That was the year Southern Baptists approved a new Baptist Faith and Message that implicitly excludes same-sex partners, defining the family as “persons related to one another by marriage, blood or adoption.”

Soulforce protestors claim that Southern Baptist attitudes against homosexuality contribute to discrimination and even violence against gays. Police arrested 27 protestors in 2000 in Orlando for refusing police orders to disband and leave the convention center grounds. A 2001 demonstration in New Orleans netted 34 arrests outside the Superdome, where the SBC annual meeting was being held.

Soulforce’s presence has also prompted counterdemonstrations from Fred Phelps, an independent Baptist pastor from Topeka, Kan., known for his inflammatory message “God Hates Fags” displayed on placards and a Web site.

“Religious freedom allows the SBC to be as bigoted as they choose to be against gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender people,” Soulforce said in a message on its Web site. “Fortunately, freedom of speech allows us to speak another message of hope and love for God’s GLBT children, as we seek to change hearts and minds both inside and outside their church.”

Soulforce plans to  hold a two-day training session for organizers June 15-16, followed by a press conference Monday night, June 16. Protestors then plan to hold vigils in front of the convention center while the SBC meets Tuesday and Wednesday, June 17-18.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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