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Rick Warren is coming to Atlanta.

The conservative mega pastor is scheduled to keynote the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday festivities in Atlanta in January. Warren has been embroiled in a national controversy over his anti-gay views since he was selected earlier this month to deliver the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration.

News of the Atlanta visit by the pastor of 22,000-member Saddleback Church in California broke on Monday, though King Center officials say they invited Warren to speak last May, well before the recent controversy erupted.

Warren’s Atlanta speech is already drawing interest from some gay activists who are considering whether to organize protests on Jan. 19, when the pastor is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at 10 a.m. during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church. His stop in Atlanta comes a day before he’s expected to deliver the invocation at Obama’s swearing-in on Jan. 20.

Georgia Equality, the statewide gays rights groups, says it has no plans for protests in Atlanta. But grassroots activists involved in three recent actions here – a rally at the State Capitol and candlelight vigil on Nov. 15 and a Dec. 13 rally outside two malls in Buckhead – say they are developing plans to counter Warren’s visit.

imageWarren’s scheduled speech in Atlanta, like his planned invocation, is drawing swift reaction among gay activists in Atlanta.

Georgia Equality, a gay rights advocacy group, has no plans for protests in Atlanta, but thinks Warren is a poor choice.

Warren’s opposition to gay marriage and homosexuality flies in the face of the King celebration of civil and human rights for all, said Jeff Graham, executive director of the advocacy group. (photo)

“I’m very, very concerned that they would give such a prime speaking position to Rev. Warren,” he said.

Cindy Abel of Atlanta, a former officer with the national Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political group that supports gay candidates, said she would embrace Warren’s participation in political dialogues, but she finds it difficult to accept him in such prominent roles for the two events.

“He does not support civil rights for everyone,” she said.

Warren fights back

Warren has been on the defensive this week, arguing in a video to his church that he doesn’t equate gay relationships with incest or pedophilia, but opposes redefining marriage just as other Christian conservatives would.

In his video, he insisted he wasn’t equating gay marriage with incest or child molestation.

“I have in no way ever taught that homosexuality is the same thing as a forced relationship between an adult and a child, or between siblings,” Warren said. “I was trying to point out I’m not opposed to gays having their partnership. I’m opposed to gays using the term marriage for their relationship.”

Also in the video, Warren labels criticism of his selection as “a lot of hate speech” fueled by “Christophobia.”

“Our nation is being destroyed by the demonization of differences,’’ he says. “The fact that an evangelical pastor believes in keeping the historic definition of marriage—that’s not news. The fact that the gay community would disagree with me—that’s not news either. The real story is that a couple of different American leaders have chosen to model civility for the rest of the nation.’‘

Warren spoke forcefully in favor of Proposition 8, a measure California voters passed in November that bans same-sex unions. Warren, in an interview last week with NBC’s “Dateline,” again spoke of same-sex unions in terms that disparaged gay relationships.

Beyond his opposition to marriage equality, Warren’s church was also criticized this week for a statement on its web site that says gays “unwilling to repent of their homosexual lifestyle would not be accepted” as members.

On Tuesday, the church replaced a brief article on the Bible and homosexuality with an audio message on Saddlebackfamily.com to better explain the church’s view that Scripture prohibits sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman, according to Larry Ross, a Warren spokesman.

Anyone can attend Saddleback worship services. But the church article had said that gays “unwilling to repent of their homosexual lifestyle would not be accepted” as members.

Saddleback members must sign a broadly worded covenant in which they agree to follow Bible teachings. While gay relationships aren’t mentioned in the pledge, it is meant to cover the spectrum of conservative Christian belief.

King family’s struggle with gay equality

imageWarren’s involvement in the MLK holiday observance highlights the King family’s own struggle with gay equality.

The center chose him in part because of his getting evangelicals working to solve social problems such as poverty, said Isaac Farris, its president.

“Rick Warren represents for most people the more conservative side of Christianity, but is also part of the beloved community that my uncle [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] talked about,” Farris said. “We are very supportive, and have been, of the gay community,” he said. “But we cannot exclude people. We cannot do to others what the gay community is accusing others of doing to them, meaning … they should not foster others being excluded.”

King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, included gay people in their inner circle, including Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. Gay Atlantan Lynn Cothren was Mrs. King’s personal assistant for more than 20 years.

After her husband died, Mrs. King continued to support HIV/AIDS fundraisers and awareness campaigns, as well as marriage for gay couples.

“Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil unions,” Mrs. King said during a 2005 speech in New Jersey, according to Southern Voice.

But Bernice King, the family’s youngest child, led a 2004 march in Atlanta supporting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Martin Luther King III has said he did not want marriage redefined, but did support same-sex partnerships.

Warren fallout includes Atlanta connection

Before news of Warren’s appearance surfaced, the fallout over Warren’s inclusion in the inauguration included a few Atlanta connections.

Harry Knox, a former executive director of Georgia Equality, was included in a report about the flap Dec. 18 on NBC’s “Nightly News with Brian Williams.“ Knox, now director of the religion and faith program for the Human Rights Campaign, has been in Georgia recently to work on Jim Martin’s failed campaign for U.S. Senate.

“By making this pick, the president-elect really sent a message to me and my community that we don’t matter as much to him as people that didn’t even vote for him,“ Knox says in the report. (Watch the video.)

Additionally, Chris Crain, the former editor and owner of Southern Voice and gay papers in other markets, took issue with some of the gay criticism over Warren on his blog Citizen Crain.

Barack Obama’s offense was to select Rick Warren, a conservative evangelical who opposes gay marriage, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Never mind, for the moment, that Obama also opposes marriage equality, as did Hillary Clinton and every other viable presidential candidate.

Warren also spoke out in favor of Proposition 8, but never mind that support for a constitutional amendment overturning a historic gay marriage ruling puts Warren in smack dab the same spot as presidential candidate John Kerry, who nonetheless received heaped praise from the Human Rights Campaign and other gay rights groups. And never mind that Warren was selected to deliver a prayer, not a political speech, and will no doubt say nothing at all relating to gays or marriage—come to think of it, that kind of avoidance would have practically qualified Warren for a “strategy” role in the No on 8 campaign.

Never mind all of those things because they do not matters as much as ideological purity, as defined by those who somehow think of themselves as “progressive” despite their own naked intolerance. We must demand exclusion in the name of “unity”!  Isn’t that ironic, doncha think?

Crain has continued to critique the controversy this week by tweaking the Human Rights Campaign and other gay organizations for attempting to distract supporters from more pressing issues.

A nice juicy controversy with absolutely nothing of consequence at stake, and all those angry gays upset by the humiliating defeat of gay marriage rights in California, Arizona and Florida are distracted from further inquiry into why we lost, or whether there is anything that Democrat-controlled Washington can do anything about it.

Look at this shiny Rick Warren bauble, gay people! Pay no attention behind that curtain to the deal Joe Solmonese, Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin and others have cut to give you only hate crime and ENDA crumbs until after the mid-term elections! (And by then, of course, the excuse will be that controversial issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and relationship recognition must wait for Obama’s re-election.)

Remember Solmonese’s “very frank” letter—we know it’s “very frank” because HRC said it was—to the president-elect calling the Warren invitation “a genuine blow to LGBT Americans”? Does anyone remember HRC sending such a very frank letter when congressional Democrats failed to pass even the most benign form of gay rights legislation? (No, actually, HRC thanked them for giving it the ol’ college try—for the 12th consecutive year.)

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