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Saturday, June 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Rainbow flag hangs proudly at California religion school

By Randy Myers
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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BERKELEY, Calif. — The religious-studies center Mary Tolbert helped create wears its rainbow stripes proudly, vigorously advocating for gays and lesbians sitting in pews and preaching from pulpits.

"Our role is really to work to change the public discourse around sexuality and religion in a way that works for the benefit of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people," said Tolbert, the center's executive director.

It's accomplishing that mission without any fuss at a Christian seminary, an institution where it would be more likely to encounter the most icy reception.

The warm welcome gays and lesbians receive at Berkeley's Pacific School of Religion even declares itself from a window at Benton Hall, an on-campus housing unit where a huge rainbow flag, the symbol of gay pride, hangs undisturbed.

As cultural and religious battles rage over issues such as same-sex marriages and gays and lesbians in the clergy, the Pacific School of Religion sticks to a long-held tradition of advocating and supporting gays and lesbians.

"There's a need for a progressive religious voice on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues," said dean Bill McKinney.

The multidenominational seminary of the United Church of Christ challenges prevailing perceptions that Christianity resoundingly rejects homosexuality.

Throughout contemporary history, the institution founded in 1866 has been at the forefront in the inclusion of gays and lesbians.

• In 1972, Pacific School of Religion graduate Bill Johnson became the first openly gay man ordained by a Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ.

• In the '70s, the seminary's board opened married-student housing to committed same-sex partners, a move considered bold even by secular university standards.

• In 2000, Tolbert opened the religious-studies center, the only national, perhaps international, program of its kind.

The allure of helping launch the center enticed New Testament scholar Tolbert, who was raised a Southern Baptist, to move from Tennessee to the Bay Area along with her lesbian partner.

The idea of a religious center had percolated in Tolbert's mind since the '80s. At the Pacific School of Religion, the topic came up seven years ago during a casual conversation among McKinney and some board members who were gay.

Since its debut, Tolbert and three other part-time staff members have sponsored forums and been peppered with requests for media interviews and consultations on headline-making topics ranging from the installation of openly gay Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson to biblical views on same-sex marriage.

"It's been quite a year," Tolbert said.

"It's interesting because what you find is that many people are objecting to the civil rights of gay and lesbian people on religious grounds, and that's highly problematic for the way in which our country is supposedly set up in terms of the separation between church and state."

Misuse of Scripture in the debate, especially about same-sex marriage, most distressed her, Tolbert said.

"I've heard people say the Bible is for marriage, and I just wonder what Bible are they reading? Because the Bible I read doesn't have much to do with marriage between one man and one woman. And in the Hebrew Bible in the Old Testament, one of the predominant patterns of marriage is polygamy."

She hopes more Christians who support gays and lesbians speak up on their own issues.

"I think the voice of progressive Christianity has become really muted, in fact almost drowned out by the voice of conservative Christianity," Tolbert said.

"I'm not saying that conservative Christians don't have a right to get their message out. I think they do. But I think progressive Christians need to get their message out, too."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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