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Progressive Florida churches rally against DeSantis over LGBTQ, abortion and school laws

A group of progressive Christian churches from across Florida are protesting in Tampa on Saturday against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies on LGBTQ issues, abortion and K-12 education.

The rally, hosted by Equality Florida, will include clergy and members from Metropolitan Community Churches, an international coalition founded in 1968 by an openly gay Christian pastor. The group welcomes the LGBTQ+ community, and combats the narrative that queer people cannot exist within the Christian faith.

“The notion that a church would say to anyone, LGBTQ or otherwise, you don’t belong is antithetical to the Gospels,” said Rev. Craig A. Cranston, rally organizer and senior pastor at St John the Apostle MCC in Fort Myers.

The group is protesting new Florida laws related to instruction on LGBTQ issues, gender-affirming care for transgender people, drag shows, diversity and inclusion in higher education and the state’s six-week abortion ban.

READ MORE: DeSantis signs six-week abortion ban. Next step is up to Florida Supreme Court

Between 200-500 people are expected to attend, according to Cranston. Speakers include Miami’s Jennifer Solomon, the parents and families support manager for Equality Florida; Rev. Elder Cecilia Eggleston, CEO and spokesperson for MCC; and students who will speak on the impact of the legislation in their schools.

“We hear so many conservative Christian voices that support these kinds of initiatives; progressive Christian voices must stand up and be counted,” said Cranston, who noted that a little more than half of the congregation at his church are members of the LGBTQ community. “We have to speak out and say that these initiatives are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Supporting young people

Even if the protests don’t elicit immediate change, the Rev. Durrell Watkins said it’s important to speak up to set an example for young people.

“We can’t make you do what we think is right, but we can make sure you don’t keep us from doing what we think is right,” said Watkins, senior minister of Sunshine Cathedral, a Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Lauderdale. “So there’s a resistance to showing up and saying, ‘Queer kids deserve to be safe in school.’ ‘’

About 80 percent of Americans support laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual,and transgender people from discrimination in jobs and other aspects of daily life — an uptick of 8 percent from 2015, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the LGBTQ community. Yet, the outcry against LGBTQ protections from conservative religious groups has become louder in recent years.

In early September, the Miami-Dade School Board rejected a proposal to recognize October as LGBTQ History Month for the second year in a row. Members of the public who spoke out against the measure — which would not have affected instruction — outweighed the students, parents and advocates who showed up in support. The majority of those in opposition espoused the Christian faith, arguing that homosexuality is against their religion.

READ MORE: After marathon meeting, Miami-Dade School Board rejects LGBTQ Month — again

A student’s story

One of the stories protesters will hear Saturday is from 16-year-old Ella Taylor-Clark, a non-binary student from Hillsborough County. As president of the Gay-Straight Alliance Club at their school, Taylor-Clark says the hostility around LGBTQ issues in school is palpable.

“I dealt with a lot of bullying, mainly in my freshman year. I’m not gonna say it’s gotten a whole lot better, but I think I have developed a slightly thicker skin. From physical to verbal abuse in the hallways, I felt unsafe. I had a panic attack at least once,” Taylor-Clark said.

For LGBTQ history month in October, Taylor-Clark requested to hang a pride flag in school as a symbol of support for gay and transgender students. The administration denied the request, citing a disruption to education, particularly during PSAT month, which is also in October.

“I love the fact that religious organizations are standing up for queer rights, as so many of them do not,” said Taylor-Clark. “I think it gives a lot of hope for the future of Florida. We need more organizations and churches to stand up for LGBTQ rights.”

Metropolitan Community Church principles

The first MCC church was founded by a gay Pentecostal minister, Rev. Troy Perry, who was kicked out of his church. It has evolved over the years to become an all-inclusive safe haven, advocating for other social justice issues along with LGBTQ rights, said Watkins, the Fort Lauderdale minister.

“If we’re going to be advocates for same-gender-loving people, and for people who are non-binary and and intersex and transgender, we have to care about people who suffer from racism, and we have to acknowledge our contribution to racist systems,” said Watkins. “And we have to be aware of misogyny. We shouldn’t be telling women what to do with their bodies and so on.”

Though the church has been around for over 50 years, Cranston said people are still surprised to find a Christian church that’s accepting of the LGBTQ community.

“There isn’t a gay pride event that I go to, not one, where somebody doesn’t come up to me see me dressed as I am now and just wrap their arms around me in an embrace of desperation, and joy. And they begin to cry: ‘Nobody ever told me that God could actually love me.’ And it breaks your heart,” he said.

“We’re the church that says God loves you exactly as you are, beautifully and wonderfully made.”

This report was created with philanthropic support from Christian, Muslim and Jewish funders in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all work.