by Lou Chibbaro Jr. -
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. (March 17, 2021) - Attorney and longtime LGBTQ rights advocate Dean Trantalis, who is serving as the first openly gay mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., came under criticism by LGBTQ activists this week for backing and signing a proclamation approved by the Fort Lauderdale City Commission honoring the city's Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.
Founded in 1960 by televangelist Rev. D. James Kennedy, the church became a platform for Kennedy's strong anti-gay views for over 30 years, including his promotion of debunked "conversion therapy" to change someone's sexual orientation from gay to straight.
By the 1980s, its television ministry, from which Kennedy preached at an enlarged church building with a 300-foot-tall tower in Fort Lauderdale, had an audience of 3.5 million viewers, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Wayne Besen, executive director of the LGBTQ group Truth Wins Out, urged Trantalis not to sign the proclamation. He pointed out that the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2011 listed Coral Ridge Ministries, the church's political action arm controlled by Kennedy, as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Some observers say the church has moderated its positions and public statements on homosexuality since Kennedy's successors took over in 2007 after Kennedy's death. But Besen told the Washington Blade the church has yet to change its official anti-LGBTQ positions and has not apologized for its past "hurtful" actions toward the LGBTQ community.
Trantalis defended his support for the proclamation during the five-member City Commission's meeting Tuesday evening, March 16, which was broadcast over Zoom. Trantalis, who is a member of the commission, spoke after Vice Mayor Steven Glassman, who is gay and also serves as a commissioner, read a statement criticizing the proclamation.
Glassman called the proclamation honoring Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church a "sanitized and whitewashed history of Dr. Kennedy and the church," according to the South Florida Gay News, which covered the commission meeting.
The proclamation honors the church in recognition of the 60th anniversary of its founding and the 50th anniversary of the founding of its church school, the Westminster Academy.
"It's time to build a future based on love and not hate, and it's time for those who still harbor resentment to let go of it," the SFGN quoted Trantalis as saying to his fellow commission members. "I know I have, and I know my community has," the paper quoted him as saying.
"There's no doubt that the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and one of its previous pastors have been a difficult challenge for our community, and to say the least, I stood out there on sidewalks and demonstrated in front of the convention center as well as their church, in which we protested the types of practices that the church engaged in once upon a time," said Trantalis as reported by the SFGN.
In a statement that Trantalis released to the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, which urged Trantalis not to sign the proclamation, he suggested that members of the Coral Ridge Church were among people of faith he has spoken with who have been "eager to bring our communities together."
During Tuesday's City Commission meeting, Commissioner Heather Moraitis, who is a member of the Coral Ridge Church and serves as the church school's development director, expressed support for LGBTQ people, the SFGN reported.
"My grandfather had 13 children and came out as a gay gentleman, and I will always love him and value him," the SFGN quoted her as saying. "I've loved many other gay men and women, including you, Steve, and you, Dean, and it's a privilege to serve with you," she said referring to Vice Mayor Glassman and Trantalis.
According to the SFGN, the church's current pastor, Rev. Rob Pacienza, was present during the commission meeting to officially receive the proclamation.
"I think for far too long, the church has been known more for what they've been against than what they've been for, and we look forward to building those bridges," the SFGN quoted him as saying.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, senior minister of Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, which has a mostly LGBTQ congregation and is affiliated with the LGBTQ Metropolitan Community Churches, sent the following statement in response to a Blade inquiry:
"Sunshine Cathedral does have an historic affiliation with Metropolitan Community Churches but also is affiliated with other organizations, such as the International Council of Community Churches.
"Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is well known for its very conservative theology and social views, and in the past, for being overtly homophobic. I don't know if they are as openly hostile to LGBTQ+ people as they once were. I doubt if their values have changed dramatically, but I am far less aware of hostile tones and intentions since the end of the D. James Kennedy era. I don't know if they continue to support the cruel and dehumanizing practice of 'conversion therapy.' I hope not.
"I do not personally know Rev. Rob Pacienza.
"I do hope that Coral Ridge will one day see that their homophobic rhetoric was hurtful to many people and will try to make amends for the harm they caused. I have no idea if such a day is at hand.
"As far as the mayor, I trust that his intention is to be the mayor for all people and all communities within his city and that he believes honoring CRPC for [its] longevity is the proper thing to do. Of course some will disagree with him, but I do believe that his intentions are good and that he is operating within the guidelines of his own integrity. I have found Mayor Trantalis to be open to all constituencies. I am not surprised that he would show kindness to an organization that at least a few years ago would have undoubtedly been unwelcoming of him. It is consistent with what I know of his character.
"I can't at this moment condone or condemn the council's decision to honor CRPC, but in my experience of Mayor Trantalis, he consistently tries to build bridges and model a spirit of generosity and goodwill."
Reprinted from the Washington Blade