Tiny Imperial County could play a decisive role in the battle over same-sex marriage in California. In the 2008 election, citizens of the county, which is overwhelmingly Hispanic, voted by 62% for Barack Obama and by nearly 70% in support of Proposition 8. If Imperial County is granted standing to appeal Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision overturning Prop. 8, then it’s virtually guaranteed that the case will go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle featured a front-page article that completely distorted the positions of Imperial County civic and religious officials regarding same sex marriage and the county’s attempt to defend Proposition 8 in court. The article, as described by the Imperial Valley Press, painted the county as a “queer-hating, Bible-thumping bastion of backwater bigotry.” I was disturbed by several aspects of the Chronicle reporting. According to the opening paragraph, Imperial County was “taking a lonely stand” — despite the fact that the initiative received support from 7 million voters. The county is described condescendingly as “an impoverished, sun-baked desert backwater pasted into the southeast corner of California”. One particular quote stood out like a sore thumb, in which the reporter summarized the position of county supervisors and religious leaders:
The idea that sinners are not allowed to get married didn’t make sense to me, since everyone is a sinner according to the Christian Bible. I contacted four county civic and religious leaders to see if they agreed with the statement. All of them expressed disappointment in the article, and none recalls having made such a statement, and none of them agrees with it.
County Supervisor Wally Leimgruber spoke with the Chronicle reporter and photographer about the case for at least an hour. Leimgruber was interested in discussing the legal aspects of the case. However, when prompted by the photographer, he did respond that he agreed with the statement that the homosexual lifestyle is a sinful lifestyle. Fellow Supervisor Jack Terrazas did not recall himself or any other supervisor discussing marriage with respect to sinners. Terrazas wrote, “my reason for the appeal and the request to enter into the case was to follow the wish of the voters in Imperial County, who by an almost 70% voted for Prop. 8.”
Terrazas suggested that the reporter may have generalized the views of religious leaders and county supervisors as one view. So I checked with two members of the pastoral staff at Christ Community Church in El Centro. Associate Pastor Chris Nunn was portrayed in the article as a judgmental Bible-thumping bigot:
He opened up his Bible and began jabbing his finger at passages such as Corinthians 6:9-11, which lumps “homosexuals” and “sodomites” in with idolaters and thieves as being among those “who will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Nunn wrote to me that he was saddened by the distortion of his position in the article. “I can assure you that we did not say, nor do we believe that there is no place in marriage for sinners. I am a sinner. I am the first to admit it…. If I believed that sinners shouldn’t marry then I wouldn’t have been able to get married myself.”
Associate Pastor Steve Messick agreed that the article was “beyond recognition when compared with the topics and demeanor actually discussed during the interview with the Chronicle.” During our telephone conversation, Messick referred me to several passages from the Bible that discussed love and marriage. He also quoted Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Obviously if sinners were excluded from marriage, then there would be no marriage in the first place. Messick was charitable to the Chronicle, saying that the distorted view was either a misunderstanding or a misquote.
A retired fish and game warden, Messick told the Chronicle about a memorable conversation he had during the battle over Proposition 8. On the street a lesbian woman yelled at him, “What have you people got against love?” He responded by going over and talking with her. Over and over the next half-hour, they discussed love from a personal and Biblical perspective. At the end of the conversation, Messick reports that the woman was moved to tears. Messick also discussed some of the ways that his church is impacting the local community. Located in a low income, high crime area, Christ Community Church is committed, in his words, “to seeing God change the area.” Its New Creations street ministry has helped hundreds of people affected by homelessness, substance abuse, and other afflictions. Yet none of this was reported – apparently it didn’t support the Chronicle’s desire to protray arrogant religious leaders.
I received no response to an email I sent to reporter Kevin Fagan.
However there have been a number of responses to the article itself. A letter to the editor criticized the “organized homophobia” of the “religious right”, claiming (based on the article) that church leaders want to deny marriage to gays and lesbians “because they are de facto sinners.” The Imperial Valley Press editorial called for Supervisor Liemgruber to be removed from office. And Leimbreiber forwarded correspondence that he received condemning him as a “bigot” whose “homophobic opinion” is “on par with the [mid-20th century] racism in the deep south”.