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Gay Bullying Deaths and Religion: Are Believers the Problem or the Solution?

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The national heartbreak and ongoing furor over the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the New Jersey college freshman who was humiliated when two other students secretly videotaped and broadcast on the Internet his tryst with another man, has cast a harsh light on the scourge of bullying, especially when it targets gay and lesbian youth.

But Clementi's death last month, following suicides by several other homosexual teens in recent weeks, has also prompted a sharp debate in religious communities, a discussion that includes an unusual degree of soul-searching in addition to the more typical defensiveness.

Christian denominations, where homosexuality is often condemned in uncompromising terms and where battling gay rights can be a legislative priority, have been particularly roiled by the debate, with traditionalists who tend to lead the charge against homosexuality posing some of the toughest questions for their own members.

"Are we complicit?" was the title of a provocative blog post on Tuesday at Mirror of Justice, a Catholic legal affairs site.

The author of that column, Russell Powell, an associate law professor at Seattle University School of Law, wrote: "In the Church's attempt to assert its commitment to heterosexual marriage and to maintain that homosexuality is a moral disorder, does it help to create a cultural climate that tacitly legitimizes the stigmatization of gay young people?"

Powell wrote that the suicides have prompted him "to reconsider the possible benefits of anti-bullying legislation even if it were to serve a largely symbolic function."

There is no evidence that those who harassed Clementi or others were motivated chiefly or even in part by religious teachings, but the concern is that some Christian rhetoric may be contributing to an atmosphere that legitimizes gay-bashing, or that churches are not doing enough to counter the anti-gay sentiment existing in the rest of society.

Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and a "traditional evangelical" known for counseling homosexuals to overcome their same-sex impulses, also wrote that the recent suicides should help convince Christian conservatives to drop their opposition to anti-bullying laws that list sexual orientation as a category.

"Christians need not worry about violating their faith when schools insist on fair and respectful treatment for all," Throckmorton wrote at CNN's Belief Blog. "Anti-gay name-calling is hurtful to all students. Refusing to name the problem can create the illusion that such name-calling is acceptable."

Related: It Gets Better: Fighting to Save Gay Teens, One Video at a Time, by Sarah Wildman

On Wednesday, Exodus International, a controversial Christian group that tries to help "liberate" homosexuals from same-sex attractions, announced it would stop sponsoring an annual event that encourages school students to "counter the promotion of homosexual behavior." The reason, Exodus head Alan Chambers told CNN, is because "the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace while treating their neighbors as they'd like to be treated, whether they agree with them or not."

Others Christian leaders adopted a more traditional "hate the sin, love the sinner" attitude. But they still reproached their fellow believers for not showing nearly enough of the latter when it comes to gays and lesbians.

"When gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are wrong. Our concern about the sinfulness of homosexuality is not rooted in fear, but in faithfulness to the Bible -- and faithfulness means telling the truth," R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading evangelical voice, wrote at his website.

"Yet, when gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are also right. Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear," Mohler wrote.

"We speak of homosexuals as a particular class of especially depraved sinners and we lie about how homosexuals experience their own struggle. Far too many evangelical pastors talk about sexual orientation with a crude dismissal or with glib assurances that gay persons simply choose to be gay. While most evangelicals know that the Bible condemns homosexuality, far too many find comfort in their own moralism, consigning homosexuals to a theological or moral category all their own."

Christians on the more liberal end of the spectrum have been, not surprisingly, quicker to point a finger at conservative members of their own tradition who they say scapegoat and demonize homosexuals through their religious language and in public policy fights in support of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, for example, or in campaigns against gay marriage, such as the Proposition 8 referendum in California.

"Saying that homosexuality and Christianity are incompatible is violence," said the Rev. Troy G. Plummer, a gay Methodist pastor and activist. "From policy to pulpit to pew to parents to persons, this injustice creates bullies who believe their faith favors punishment of people for the 'sin' of being born gay."

In the same vein, in a column at Religion Dispatches titled "Bullies Flourishing with Christian Support," Candace Chellew-Hodge criticized Focus on the Family, a prominent lobby on the religious right, for leading the charge against anti-bullying legislation introduced in August by Pennsylvania Democrat Robert Casey in the Senate and California Democrat Linda Sanchez in the House.

Those bills, each called the Safe Schools Improvement Act, include sexual orientation as a targeted category -- along with religion and race -- and provide for programs to educate students. Focus on the Family officials say those provisions would in reality "promote homosexuality to kids" as early as kindergarten and "lay the foundation for codifying sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes."

"Instead of being concerned for the actual lives of gay and lesbian children (or those perceived as gay and lesbian), Focus' true motive is to continue its political and religious agenda at the expense of these children," said Chellew-Hodge, a lesbian pastor in South Carolina and editor of an online magazine for gay Christians.

Chellew-Hodge also noted that Focus on the Family's campaign against the bullying legislation coincided with the launch of a new campaign by the group, called "True Tolerance," which aims to fight bullying policies that protect gays by claiming they seek to "evade parental rights" and "circumvent traditional marriage laws."

Within weeks of the campaign's launch, the bullying suicides of Clementi and the others were national news.

But Focus on the Family rejects any connection between its rhetoric and bullying or teen suicides, and they and other Christian lobbies say they won't alter their political efforts because of the recent deaths.

"All of these deaths are tragic, but it is factually wrong to say that all were the result of anti-gay bullying," said William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, a conservative advocacy group. "Worse, it is libelous to suggest that because Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) is opposed to homosexuality that somehow it should be held responsible for whatever bullying did go on. Indeed, to suggest culpability is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to stifle religious speech."

Focus on the Family officials also argue that teen suicide is a complex issue, especially for gay and lesbian youths, and that bullying is only one of several potential factors and so Christian beliefs against homosexuality should not be blamed.

"It's shameful that some pro-homosexual activists would exploit the personal tragedies of these families to promote a political agenda," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a prominent conservative Christian lobby. "While individual bullies may target 'gay' kids (and should be punished), there's no empirical evidence for the claim that society's disapproval of homosexuality causes the mental health problems (including depression and suicide) that are found among homosexuals."

Education experts and child psychologists disagree. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called bullying "a moral issue" when he convened the first-ever bullying prevention summit this past August.

Bullying, Duncan said, "is really a form of physical and mental abuse" that "leaves long-lasting scars on children."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that after physical appearance, homosexuality is considered a prime factor in bullying, and that youth who are bullied are more likely than other children to be depressed, lonely and anxious, and are more prone to think about suicide or trying to commit suicide. A survey by the group Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 85 percent of gay students were harassed during the previous school year but few reported it.

One irony of the conservative Christian opposition to homosexuality and anti-discrimination efforts is that religion is also listed in every anti-bullying statute as a reason youth are bullied, and a 2008 British study found that one in four young people from across all religions in the United Kingdom had been bullied because of their religious beliefs.

The outcry over the deaths of Tyler Clementi and many others is not likely to deter extremist believers from gay-bashing rhetoric. The case of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, whose members picket the funerals of AIDS victims and soldiers with signs reading "God Hates Fags," was argued before the Supreme Court this week, but as repellent as most other Christians find their views, the group's protests are likely to be found constitutionally protected speech.

More problematic may be the run-of-the-mill Christian discourse that often demeans gays, such as the assertion last week by Sen. Jim DeMint -- a conservative Republican and Tea Party leader from South Carolina -- who told a church audience that homosexuals (and single women who sleep with their boyfriends) should be barred from teaching positions. DeMint was criticized by some but offered no apologies and noted how his past comments on gays have elicited wide though quiet support.

And in his response, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said that besides punishing individual bullies, the "most compassionate" thing Christians can do for gays is to convince them they can change their sexual orientation.

On the other hand, there seems to be an effort within some churches to at least mitigate the kind of language that is deployed against homosexuals.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that homosexual acts are "objectively disordered" and has sought to bar even chaste gay men from the priesthood. And in the United States, many Catholic bishops have made fighting gay marriage and anti-bullying laws that include sexual orientation as big a priority as battling abortion rights.

But in his post at Mirror of Justice, Russell Powell expressed a hope that, at the very least, the recent teen deaths would prompt bishops and pastors "to offer encouragement to young people at risk and to call communities to love rather than to reject."

And writing at the blog of America magazine, a national Jesuit weekly, Father James Martin said that the church often approaches gays and lesbians with a series of "Thou shall nots" rather than a positive message of love and acceptance.

"[I]f pro-life means trying to avoid anything that will threaten any life, from natural conception to natural death, then we should be finding ways to protect all life, which also means preventing suicides, and preventing gay suicides," Martin wrote. "In any event, there is much for us, the church, still to do."

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