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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Plenty of Spokane’s faithful supporting Referendum 74

The Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins is well-known in Spokane for his activism and outspoken commitment to equality. (File)
The Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins is well-known in Spokane for his activism and outspoken commitment to equality. (File)

As the campaign for Referendum 74 rolls along, you might fall under the impression that people of faith – all of them – are opposed to gay marriage.

That this historic vote before us is a battle between the godless and the godly. Or at least the insufficiently godly with those who are properly so.

In truth, plenty of religious people endorse Referendum 74 – and they’re not all Unitarians. The loudest opponents of R-74 have somehow managed to claim the mantle of belief and faith all to themselves; the battle is being joined with full force by the clergy and in the pews, notably in the Catholic Church.

And yet there are people of faith speaking out from a Biblical perspective in favor of gay marriage. Happy Watkins, for example.

Watkins, the longtime pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church, is one of Spokane’s truly distinct characters. His annual performances of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – along with his other community activism – makes him perhaps the most outspoken voice of equality and justice in town.

“The Biblical perspective says that, out of all the commandments, the two that all the laws come from are: Love the Lord with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself,” Watkins said. “Jesus never talked about gays and lesbians, unless you’re putting words in his mouth.”

At the age of 70, Watkins is pushing himself into what he sees as another frontier in the same old fight: equality. Though there are other clergy members who have supported R-74, he isn’t in the mainstream by any means. He is the pastor of a Baptist church whose hierarchy won’t be sanctioning gay marriages any time soon; he recalls a time a few years back when black pastors were being encouraged to “purge” gays and lesbians from their churches.

But he has always gone his own way.

“I’m tired of folks boxing God,” he said. “They make God small. ‘This is what I think God would say. This is what I think God would do.’ ”

Watkins’ attitudes toward diversity – toward “other” people – were sharpened in his Bronx childhood. He grew up on a block literally stacked and packed with apartments, housing people from all over the world. Gays and lesbians were a part of it. Unlike a lot of us – who grew up in an atmosphere of casual, unchallenged bigotry toward gays and lesbians – Watkins said he always knew gay people, and so he never hated or feared them.

“When you get to know people, it makes a difference,” he said.

This is key. Getting to know people. That’s why full civil rights for gay people are inevitable, regardless of what we choose collectively to do on R-74. The genie is out of the closet; the powerful social engine of acquaintance will keep it out. It is more impossible with every passing day to simply not know a gay person – to box them out of your life and declare them, Falwell-like, “indecent.” Each successive generation sees this as sillier than the last, and the confrontation between ignorant stereotypes and flesh-and-blood human beings will eventually make it impossible to sustain our legal obstacles to their full rights. What we in Washington have the privilege of deciding is whether we’ll pull that train or chase it from behind.

Some opponents of R-74 – making the separate-but-equal argument regarding domestic partnerships – have continued to suggest that the referendum would somehow force churches to marry gay people. Of course, pastors who now would like to perform marriage ceremonies for their gay and lesbian parishioners are having their rights infringed right now.

“Their churches are just forbidden, by the state, from doing that,” said Jon Snyder, Spokane City Councilman and supporter of R-74.

Some of us would prefer that this not be a religious debate at all, but it would be naïve to hope for that, even in relatively unchurched Washington. Snyder debated Catholic Bishop Blase Cupich at the Rotary Club on Thursday. Next Tuesday, Rick Santorum – a man who finds homosexuality categorically similar to intercourse with dogs – will come to Spokane for a private, invitation-only event intended to teach local pastors what R-74 will do to their congregations and “what you can do to stop it.” A gathering of local religious leaders on the other side of the issue is planned as well.

Watkins would like to see some of those pastors get to know their communities and congregations better. To recognize that there are people right there, under their noses, who need Biblical love more than Biblical judgment.

“Here’s where the rub is: Who is my neighbor?” Watkins said. “When it boils down, the Scripture just says love your neighbor as yourself. That’s huge!”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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