Sunday, August 12, 2007

Church cancels funeral at last minute because deceased was gay.

Cecil Sinclair served in Desert Storm. Recently he needed a heart transplant. He had some surgery to prepare him for that transplant and contracted an infection during the process. That infection killed him. He was also a gay man in a long-term relationship with another military veteran, Paul Wagner.

Wagner says that a member of High Point Church, an evangelical megachurch, offered the church for the funeral because Sinclair's brother, who is mentally challenged is a member of the church and a janitor there. The grief struck family accepted. And the night Sinclair died a minister from the church came to the hospital and Wagner was introduced to him as the partner of the deceased.

Wagner prepared to bury his partner, and Sinclair’s sister was helping. Together they prepared a loving collection of photos to be shown at the funeral to highlight Sinclair’s life. And they ran an obituary which mentioned Paul Wagner as Sinclair’s partner. That is when they were in for a shock.

After the obituary appeared the church announced it would not conduct a funeral for a gay man. Rev. Gary Simons, leader of this church, said it was not the obituary that was the problem but alleged that the video tribute of photos showed men “engaging in clear affection, kissing and embracing.”

Kathleen Wright, the sister of the deceased, was shocked by this claim. She helped prepare the photos for the video and insists the church is lying. She said none of the photos showed kissing or hugging. And Wagner backs that up:
...we gave the church a total of 83 various pictures of Cecil that were forwarded to us by various members of his family. Of those, not a single one showed a man hugging or kissing another man, nor were there any overtly homosexual references. Cecil’s sister Kathleen sat and worked with the two people preparing the video and went through all of the photos with them. There was only one photo which would be considered offensive, as it was a picture of him in his early 20s making a rude gesture at his best friend who was taking the photo. We removed it and never asked that it be included. It was just overlooked in the rush to get things done. These individuals went through all the other photos, which were pictures of family gatherings, birthday parties, vacations, etc. At no time was anything expressed to her or us that they had a disagreement with any of the other photos.
Rev. Simon's kept up the charade about the photos as being the primary cause for his throwing out the funeral. He piously said that if a mother in the church lost a son who was a murderer that the church would conduct the funeral. "But I don't think the mother would submit photos of her son mudering someone. That's a red light going off." Actually, Reverend, that's the bullshit detector going off. Even if one accepts the absurd comparison of being gay to murdering someone the family says that no photos of kissing or hugging or gay affection were included.

Whatever the Reverend claims, the family insists that no such photos were used or shown. Ms. Wright sees the last minute cancellation of the funeral as a “slap in the face” saying they wouldn’t bury her brother only because he was gay. And Rev. Simons basically confirms that. “Had we known it on the day they first spoke about it -- yes, we would have declined then.” Wagner says he was introduced the first day as the deceased’s partner.

Simons says that to bury the dead man would have been an endorsement of his “sins”. Apparently only those who have never sinned get funeral services at this church. Simons claims that “the church” offered to pay for another site for the funeral. Wagner says that is not the case. It was the church member, who originally offered the church for the funeral, who offered to pay “with money from his own pocket, not church coffers”.

And while the church eventually found the will to say they were doing this because the dead man had been gay they were first reluctant to tell the family the truth. The family was called and simply told “a mistake was made” and the church could not help them. No other explanation was given.

A niece of the deceased then called the church demanding to know why they were canceling a funeral with so little notice. This was when “a very long string of excuses began to form.” First, they were told it was because they planned to bring in food from outside. Then it was blamed on nearby construction work that would be obtrusive. Then she was told there was a conflict with another event. When she asked what event was conflicting the church hung up on her.

Rev. Simons offered a explanation that is a bit muddled. “We did decline to host the service -- not based on hatred, not based on discrimination, but based on principle.” Actually to say they declined the service is not correct. They cancelled it. A decline would have come up front not at the last second. It is what happens when you refuse something from the start. What they did was pull the plug on a man’s funeral with no warning. That is more than just declining. It was only the night before the funeral that Rev. Simon had the funeral forcing the family to find a new venue for the next day and spending hours calling the approximate 100 mourners who would be attending.

Second, no one ever acts “based on discrimination”. Discrimination is the act itself not the reason for the act. And one can discriminate on the basis of their “principles”. Most racists, for instance, have “principles” regarding race which they act upon. Whether or not said principles are humane and decent is another question.

I see no other reasonable explanation for this action except the fundamentalist obsessions with gay people. Even if one grants their premise that it is a sin to be gay they would admit that everyone else they bury are sinners as well. In fact they argue that “all have sinned”. But only one class of “sinner” is denied a funeral at the last second.

It is not that a church doesn’t have the right to decline a funeral. That is their right and one they should be free to practice for any irrational reason they wish. Had they declined the funeral from the start there would be no unnecessary pain inflicted on a grieving family. But canceling at the last minute is just cruel. It is their decency I question not their rights.

Paul Wagner showed a decency that far surpassed the church in question. He said he understands “the church’s right to deny us the use of their facilities”. He wrote that he joined the military to “defend their freedom of religion and freedom of choice”.

Wagner says that if they had been told upfront the church refused to bury gay people “the entire issue would have been avoided” and they would have made other plans. His problem was “with the method in which they did it.... If they had told us right away, or even on Tuesday that they were not comfortable with the service we would have been more than willing to try and come to some sort of compromise, or we could have changed venues. We were never given that option. Someone in a position of power made the decision to cut us off, and didn’t even have the moral courage to tell us the truth to our faces.”

I have never seen funerals as rituals for the deceased but for the living left behind. I do not believe the dead can be insulted, they are dead. What this church did was to the living, grieving friends and family. I fully agree with Mr. Wagner. The church had the right to rfuse the service. I, too, think they are wrong for doing so but that they have the right to make that choice. And I agree that their cancellation at the last minute was unnecessarily heartless and cruel.

If they had made a mistake they should have learned to live with it and not inflict pain on people already in pain. They should learn from the experience and made it clear, in the future, that they refuse to perform funerals for gay people. Whatever one make think of the vile Fred Phelps, and his deranged family, at least they are honest and upfront with their hatreds.

High Point Church made a mistake but instead of taking responsibility for that mistake they hurt a mourning family. Their actions are a clear indication of just how bigoted and intolerant they are. They may call their beliefs “principles” if they wish. I’ve never met a bigot who wasn’t overflowing with “principles”. But the people they imposed suffering upon were not, for the most part, gay. They were mostly heterosexual friends and family who were in mourning and then, not Mr. Sinclair, were the ones who were hurt.

My feeling is that incidents like this will not drive the culture war but end it. Most Americans are decent people and they feel for anyone who has lost a loved one. When they see this sort of unnecessary cruelty they are repulsed. The culture war will end because fundamentalist can’t hide their true nature under the cloak of being “pro-family”. It was precisely the family, in this case, that they hurt. The family and friends of Mr. Sinclair have all learned something first hand about fundamentalism. And what they learned will cause many of them to defect from the cause of “cultural conservatism”.

When something this insensitive happens word spreads. As it spreads more and more people have their eyes opened. The culture war will end because the Religious Right will lose the bulk of decent people. Their power will diminish because more and more people will be repulsed by what these people do. The Religious Right will decline because they will be seen as indecent, inhumane, intolerant and cruel. And most Americans don’t share those values.