"Homosexuals are hellbound!"

Churches in Ohio are rallying their massive flocks behind the most strident anti-gay marriage amendment in the nation -- and the Republican National Committee is in heaven.

Published October 18, 2004 8:23PM (EDT)

Julie Reeves and Leigh Mamlin live in a split-level, stucco-and-brick house in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, with their two children, 18-month-old Frannie and 3-year-old Charlie. Reeves, a silver-haired 45-year-old, works full-time as an administrator at Ohio State University, her alma mater, while 40-year-old Mamlin, the children's biological mother, stays home. A grey minivan is parked in the driveway and baby books are piled on the coffee table. As they sit in their cozy living room on Sunday evening, Frannie nestles in Mamlin's lap while Charlie perches on Reeves' knee.

If Reeves and Mamlin weren't lesbians, their nuclear family would seem almost anachronistically average. Because they are, they find themselves in the middle of a raging election-season culture war that could leave Mamlin and the children without health insurance and Reeves without child custody. "It's such a personal assault," says Mamlin. "We feel violated, misunderstood, misrepresented and hated by people who are ignorant of who we truly are." And it's all coming from their fellow citizens.

On Nov. 2, Ohio will vote on Issue 1, a state constitutional amendment that purports to simply ban same-sex marriage but actually goes much further. Ten other states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah -- are also voting on anti-gay marriage amendments. They're all expected to pass, most by wide margins. Eight of the state amendments prohibit domestic partnerships or any other public benefits or recognition for gay couples. But as a headline on the front page of Columbus Dispatch recently said, "Issue 1 wording makes it the strictest." Polls show support for it hovering above 60 percent.

A crucial electoral battleground state, Ohio hasn't done well during the Bush era. In the last four years, it's lost a quarter million jobs. A report from the U.S. Census Bureau recently rated Cleveland the poorest big city in the country. Young people are leaving the state in droves. In August, Brent Larkin, editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote about Ohio's "raging brain drain."

But even as the state's economy decays, its big evangelical churches are thriving, and, with the tacit support of the national Republican Party, they have mobilized behind Issue 1. Preachers are exhorting flocks of thousands to vote their values in an election said to pit light against darkness. Ohio's gay citizens, a minority courted by no one, have been blindsided by the campaign against them. Many feel like they're under siege. Talk of moving to a friendlier state or country is widespread.

If passed, Issue 1 will force Ohio's cities and universities to stop offering domestic partner benefits, including health insurance. Right now, such benefits are offered by the city of Columbus, Ohio's Miami University, Ohio University and Ohio State University, the largest university in America. Cleveland Heights has a domestic partnership registry, and some Ohio public schools give gay employees family leave to care for ailing partners. Issue 1 would probably mean they could no longer do so. Because Ohio doesn't allow two-parent gay adoptions, Reeves had to go through a lengthy legal process to become Frannie and Charlies' legal co-parent. Her lawyer told her that if Issue 1 passes, her parental rights could be nullified.

The amendment's impact won't stop there. "Because the state can't create any legal status for unmarried couples, it's very possible that domestic-violence protection orders could no longer be used if there's a domestic violence situation with an unmarried couple," says Alan Melamed, an attorney and chairman of the anti-Issue 1 group Ohioans Protecting the Constitution. Private companies can continue to offer domestic partner benefits, he adds, but "if the employee feels that those benefits were being improperly denied, an employee won't be able to go to court and enforce those benefits."

Issue 1 is only two sentences long, but there's a world of uncertainty in it. While the first sentence simply decrees that marriage is between a man and a woman, the second says, "This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."

Like many gay couples, Reeves and Mamlin have a whole raft of documents designed to "approximate" marriage, and they have no way of knowing which ones the courts will decide that Ohio can't "recognize." Will agreements that allow them to visit each other in the hospital still be valid? Will their wills?

Many of the amendments being voted on in November raise similar questions. Georgia's, for example, strips courts of the ability to hear cases arising from same-sex partnerships. Lawyers say that could render even private contracts between couples -- things like power of attorney and property-sharing agreements -- unenforceable.

After looking at several of the state amendments, Ken Choe, a staff attorney at the ACLU's lesbian and gay rights project, says, "We are completely perplexed by the language. We don't know what far-reaching consequences these could have if they become law."

In Ohio, that's partly why many of the state's most prominent Republicans, including Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, Attorney General Jim Petro and Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, oppose it, despite their opposition to gay marriage. "It's an ambiguous invitation to litigation that will result in unintended consequences for senior citizens and for any two persons who share living accommodations," Taft said in a statement issued Wednesday.

The Republican National Committee, though, is using gay marriage to rally its Ohio base. A few weeks ago, Reeves was horrified to find that the RNC had mailed her a voter registration form attached to a four-color flier about "protecting marriage." The front of the mailer pictures a bride and groom and the words, "One Man One Woman." Inside it says, "One Vote Could Make a Difference in Making Sure It Stays that Way."

The flier warns that "Traditional values are under attack from the radical left," which seeks to "Destroy traditional marriage by legalizing gay marriage," "Support abortion on demand and partial birth abortion," and "Declare the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because of its reference to God."

Mamlin says she always felt accepted and welcomed by her neighbors. But now she senses prejudice massing just outside the door. "When you get a flier like the one we got in the mail and you see the polls, you know it's there," she says. "I'm glad my children are young enough not to catch on." Incredulously, she asks, "Who out there believes it is their right to vote on my life?"

The answer is millions of religious conservatives, for whom gay marriage has become a galvanizing issue akin to abortion. This past Friday, evangelicals from across the country gathered in D.C. for a massive "Mayday for Marriage" rally intended to move the issue to the front of the agenda during the last days of the presidential campaign. The Ohio Christian Coalition will soon distribute 2 million voter guides advocating yes on Issue 1 and highlighting Bush's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "Issue 1 has already become a tremendous mobilizer in getting the church and faith-based vote to the polls for November," says Chris Long, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Ohio.

USA Today reports that Rod Parsley, pastor of Ohio's 12,000-member World Harvest Church, has "assembled a list of 100,000 Ohio acolytes, all of whom will be called by the World Harvest Church on the eve of the election, reminding them to vote." The newspaper pointed out that Parsley held a September meeting of 200 Ohio ministers to explain that they could advocate for the supposedly nonpartisan Issue 1 without losing their nonprofit tax status.

Over 1,000 Ohio pastors have attended Christian Coalition policy briefings on Issue 1 featuring speakers such as Jerry Falwell, Illinois Senate candidate Alan Keyes and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, one of the few state leaders to support the initiative. (Blackwell became briefly notorious in September when he tried to invalidate thousands of new, mostly Democratic voter registrations on the grounds that the paper they were printed on was too thin.)

Similar mobilizations are happening in all of the states with marriage amendments on the ballot, several of which are important swing states. "Early signs are that the amendments will stimulate a higher vote in more traditional areas of the states," says Gary Bauer, veteran right-wing activist and head of the group American Values. He points to the high voter turnout in Missouri, which voted on a state anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment on Aug. 3. "The turnout in Missouri, even on a day where it was basically just a Democratic primary, was heavy, and the margins, particularly in rural counties, was about as close to unanimous as you get in a democracy."

Despite all the national backing, the driving force behind Issue 1 is an Ohioan named Phil Burress, founder of a group called Citizens for Community Values. A thrice-married Cincinnati man who describes himself as a former pornography addict redeemed by Jesus, Burress has spent much of the last decade fighting gay rights. He was involved in getting Cincinnati to pass a 1994 amendment to its city charter, making it the only metropolis in the country to ban laws protecting gays and lesbians. He's also been active in trying to get Ohio hotels to stop offering pay-per-view porn.

Burress began thinking about the specter of gay matrimony in 1995, when a friend in Honolulu warned him that the same-sex marriage fight that had erupted there could spread to the mainland. In January of 1996, he called a meeting of about 25 national "pro-family" activists in Memphis, Tenn., to discuss strategy. Today, he makes no apologies for wanting to eliminate domestic partnership benefits as well as marriage rights for gay couples. "Ohio State and Miami University, Columbus and Cleveland Heights are all taxpayer-funded institutions," he says. "They're using taxpayer money and giving out the benefits of marriage when they have no right to do so."

Bauer, a close associate of Burress', also says the goal of the movement is to ban legal benefits for same-sex couples. "I think that you really haven't accomplished much if you say marriage is between a man and a woman and then you go down the road of giving to some other combination of individuals all of the rights that accrue to marriage, like filing a joint state tax return," he says. "All you've done then is play a word game with the electorate."

If Issue 1 prevails, political and business leaders are extremely worried that an exodus of educated professionals will follow, along with a decrease in tourism and convention business. As the Plain Dealer reported on Sept. 25, Julie Harrison Calvert, spokeswoman for the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that the city's 1994 anti-gay amendment charter has cost Cincinnati at least $46 million in potential convention business. "More than a dozen firms that had considered Cincinnati, or already booked its convention center, pointed to the anti-gay measure as the reason for going elsewhere," the story said, adding, "Now, such icons as Procter & Gamble and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce are trying to get rid of the provision, saying it harms corporate recruiting."

The state's universities say that Issue 1 will make it harder for them to attract top talent and to keep the people they already have. Karen Holbrook, president of Ohio State University, recently issued a statement saying that the amendment would be "harmful to our institution's ability to remain competitive with other employers and institutions of higher learning."

Recruiting is especially important to local employers because of the way the state is hemorrhaging young people. "We're losing our talent and somehow, as our economy gets back on track, we've got to attract in additional talent," says Cheryl McClellan, a Republican sales consultant who is working with Ohioans Protecting the Constitution to organize business opposition to Issue 1. "We're going to restrict our ability to bring new talent and retain talent within Ohio if we say, 'Hey, we want you here, but you better leave your domestic partner behind.'"

It's not hard to find professional gay couples who are thinking of packing their bags. Recently, several gay Ohioans in long-term relationships gather at Dorrie and Karen Andermills' suburban Columbus home to talk about how their lives will change if Issue 1 passes. Every one of them says they are considering moving. The Andermills, who have had both a domestic partnership ceremony in Vermont and a wedding in Ontario, Canada, are longtime marriage-equality activists. Both are from Ohio and want to live near their families -- Karen helps care for a sister who has multiple sclerosis. Still, says Dorrie, who works for the American Red Cross, "We're all making plans."

Bob Barnes, an assistant vice president at Huntington National Bank, lives with Ryan Poirier, who is working on his Ph.D. in education at Ohio State University. "If Ohio did become a hate state and there was a state that said we'll welcome you, after Ryan finishes his Ph.D., I will take my MBA and we'll go," he says.

That's just fine with anti-gay crusader Burress, who has nothing but contempt for local leaders arguing against Issue 1 on economic grounds. "Every single person [who opposes Issue 1], including the attorney general, all support the homosexual agenda," he says. "Those who are pushing the homosexual agenda are being outvoted by 2 to 1. They don't have the nerve to come out and be against traditional marriage, so they are saying it's going to hurt us economically."

Earlier this month, 10 members of a local right-wing outfit called Minutemen United held an impromptu protest at Ohio State University, demanding that Holbrook, the school's president, be fired for the pragmatic stand she took against Issue 1. "Holbrook believes that candidates who live in same-sex relationships are the type of model professors the great Ohio State University wants to attract," said a statement by the group's head, Dave Daubenmire.

Daubenmire is a football coach-turned-evangelist who is running for Ohio's State Board of Education in order to "defend our children against the ungodly, humanist indoctrination of the government schools," as he says on the Minutemen Web site. He accuses Holbrook of trying to "transform Ohio's finest institution of higher learning into an institution of moral decadence."

As the conflict between Ohio's civic and business leaders and the cadres of the religious right suggests, the fight over Issue 1 is more than a just a contest between Republicans and Democrats. Rather, it's a battle in a larger struggle between stolid Middle American moderation and the mega-churched, hot-blooded moralism that is sweeping through much of the country.

This dynamic is on stark display on Friday, Oct. 8, when Columbus community leaders, activists and concerned citizens gather for a luncheon debate on Issue 1. Organized by the Columbus Metropolitan Club, a local civic group, the event is held in a second-floor dining room at the Columbus Athletic Club, an elegant place full of burnished dark wood and chandeliers. Several local businesspeople are there, including Cheryl McClellan. Every chair is taken.

The debate is between Melamed and Patrick Johnston, a physician and vice chairman of the Ohio branch of the far-right Constitution Party. Johnston isn't officially affiliated with Burress' group, Citizens for Community Values, but the two men worked together collecting signatures to put Issue 1 on the ballot, and Johnston says they talk often. He's also close to Minutemen United, whose members have turned up to support him at past speaking engagements.

Melamed, a distinguished-looking, gray-haired man in a well-cut blue suit and burgundy tie, begins the debate by emphasizing the likely legal and economic fallout from Issue 1. But Johnston, a blond, pink-faced 33-year-old, has no intention of arguing on Melamed's terms. "Even if Ohio would be better off, gays should not be allowed to marry," he says, because homosexuality is a sin that "merits discrimination." In fact, he says, "I support and endorse the criminalization of homosexuality."

Preaching like a street-corner revivalist, Johnston musters quotes from both the Bible and Dostoevski to make the tautological argument that those who reject his vision of Christianity lack the foundation to make any moral arguments. "The proof for the Christian ethic which condemns homosexual marriage is the impossibility of the contrary," he says. "Reject the Christian ethic and you have no basis for making moral judgments."

The audience stares at him in open-mouthed amazement. Looking like she's been slapped, McClellan walks out of the room and starts crying. "My father was a D-Day lander and a World War II hero," she says later. "He freed two concentration camps. All I could think of was here are all of these people who have fought and given their lives to keep our country free of maniacal people like that guy. This guy reminded me of a Hitler youth. At this stage of our evolution, why is there such a maniacal hatred of people?"

Had she checked out Johnston's Web site, she wouldn't have been so shocked. Unlike national religious right leaders, Johnston isn't coy about his agenda. He publishes poems like "America's Final Crisis," which prophesies that, unless the country adopts biblical law, "You'll be governed by queers and whores" and tyrannized with a "U.N. branded sword." In case that's not clear enough, he also offers a tract titled, "Convincing Reasons HOMOSEXUALS are HELLBOUND!"

During a question-and-answer period, someone says they'd once heard Johnston call for the execution of gays and lesbians. He vigorously denies the charge. Later, he tells me that the decision to put gays to death is a matter best left up to the states. "If we ever had a nation sufficiently Christian" to make homosexuality illegal, he says, imposing capital punishment for homosexuality would be a subject for "an in-house debate. There were capital crimes in the Bible, and that would be something debated."

At the end of the gathering, Melamed gives a stirring peroration. He speaks of being a young boy enthralled with JFK and hope for America. "What does this issue mean? It's all about what this country means," he says. Referring to Johnston, he declares, "When the light shines on this kind of rhetoric, their hopes dim and they're dimming every day." His voice keeps rising. "This amendment will be defeated and I hope I never see the day when this kind of rhetoric prevails in this country." The audience leaps to their feet as he finishes, applauding both his words and his conviction that decency will carry the day.

In large swaths of Ohio, though, as in large swaths of America, Johnston's rhetoric is already prevailing.

On a recent Saturday evening service at the Potters House, an evangelical church on Columbus' outskirts, pastor Tim Oldfield begins his sermon by launching immediately into a jeremiad against homosexuality. "We're living in a time that a lifestyle that at one time was on the list of mental disorders, called sodomy, is now called an alternative lifestyle," he says. "The Bible calls it abomination. Abomination is something disgusting." An old woman in the audience nods and says, "Very disgusting."

The next morning, at Columbus' massive World Harvest Church, a purple curtain rises to reveal a purple- and white-robed choir, standing on a bridge 30 feet above the ground. Beneath them is a row of gospel singers in black suits flanked by two piano players. They perform a soft-rock/gospel hybrid, replete with electric guitar. Behind them is a black backdrop sparkling with pinpricks of light, like a starry sky at night. Colored lights sweep over the singers, turning from blue to green to yellow to red to purple. Two huge monitors show close-ups of the singers and of the ecstatic faces of thousands of worshippers who are about to hear how Jesus wants them to vote for Issue 1.

The congregation for the Sunday service is integrated. About 40 percent of those gathered are black, and there are several interracial couples. Remarkably few of the modest cars in the enormous parking lot sport Bush-Cheney stickers. I sit near a 29-year-old churchgoer named David, a hip-looking guy in faded jeans and spiky hair who works at Abercrombie and Fitch and who is there with two buddies. Some people are dressed in their Sunday best, but there are lots of sweat shirts and sneakers, too.

The singers perform for almost half an hour before pastor Rod Parsley appears onstage. A broad-shouldered white man with ripe lips and narrow eyes, he immediately starts speaking about the election, saying, "The nation has never been more divided and the choices have never been more clear ... the light is getting lighter and the dark is getting darker."

Before he goes into details, though, there is more singing, and the crowd starts swaying, many squeezing their eyes shut and throwing their arms beseechingly into the air, palms raised toward heaven. "You need to abandon yourself," Parsley shouts, urging people on to greater heights of ecstasy. "Don't let those aisles separate you!" At his words, people started dancing between the rows of pews.

He calls headache sufferers to the front of the auditorium. But as people watch them line up, he cries out, "Don't stop worshipping Him! Don't stop worshipping Him! Don't become a spectator!" Then, as thousands in the crowd keep dancing, he moves among those who have come forward, putting his hand on their foreheads. "In the presence of God I rebuke it," he says. "In the presence of God I rebuke it. In Jesus, I rebuke it. Lose it. Lose it. In the name of Jesus. In the name of Jesus. Lose that."

The choir keeps singing and he keeps going, spewing glossolalia as he lays his hands on his flock. Some people fall back and are caught by ushers standing behind them. One woman paces the aisle, her hands above her head, looking up and sobbing.

Nearly an hour and a half passes before Parsley starts preaching in earnest to a crowd that is by then happily worn out and receptive. Christianity is under siege, he tells his audience. Interlopers from out of state have come to Ohio, "going door to door, knocking on doors so we can continue to murder babies and further strip the church of its First Amendment rights through hate crimes legislation." Gay marriage, he says, heralds "the annihilation of a civilization."

"Everybody shout yes on Issue 1!" he yells. "Yes on Issue 1!"

David tells me that Parsley's sermons haven't always been so overtly political. It's only since gay marriage became a hot issue that he's started delivering the Republican gospel. One of the ushers, an older, balding black man, says congregants have mixed feelings about the election. The economy is terrible, he says. "Some people lost everything they had." About the war, he adds, "Those kids shouldn't be over there." So would he be voting for Kerry? He wouldn't say.

Parsley's been preaching for over an hour and he's sweating. An organ trills behind him as he says, "On November 2, I see people marching like a holy army to the voting booth. I see the holy spirit anointing you as you vote for life, as you vote for marriage, as you vote for the pulpit!"

When I speak to Mamlin later that night, she imagines what would happen if she brought her kids to World Harvest Church and confronted Issue 1's proponents. "Do you have the courage to look into my child's eyes and tell him, 'You don't deserve the financial security that the kids next door have?'" she says. "Hate me, but not my son."

Inside the World Harvest Church, though, gay families are excoriated. Noon comes and goes on Sunday and Parsley is still talking about homosexuality. He holds up a children's book called "King and King," about two princes who fall in love. "They've come out with a sequel," he says, "'King and King and Family,' where they adopt children and their family is just as ordinary as their neighbors."

"No they're not!" shouts the crowd, unprompted.

After the service, I try to interview churchgoers on their way out. But before long, four security guards with walkie-talkies surround me and order me off the premises. In the moments before they get there, though, I speak to one elderly black woman, well-dressed but slightly stooped. "Are you going to vote for Bush because of gay marriage and abortion?" I ask her.

"Exactly," she says, a beatific smile on her face.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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