Gay acceptance tests limits of tolerance for some in the Chattanooga area
Collegedale's decision to grant benefits to same-sex couples was a victory for Kat Cooper, a gay detective who championed the months-long effort that made the Chattanooga suburb the first city in Tennessee to offer benefits to same-sex spouses of its government employees.
Cooper's mother, Linda, stood by her side throughout the process. She held tight to her daughter's hand at a July meeting over the issue. And the two embraced after the City Council's 4-1 vote on Aug. 5.
But those small acts of support translated into collateral damage that left Linda Cooper and other relatives separated from their church family of more than 60 years. And one local advocate for gay families says the church's stance was the most extreme he's heard of in years.
Leaders at Ridgedale Church of Christ met in private with Kat Cooper's mother, aunt and uncle on Sunday after the regular worship service. They were given an ultimatum: They could repent for their sins and ask forgiveness in front of the congregation. Or leave the church.
"My mother was up here and she sat beside me. That's it," said Kat Cooper. "Literally, they're exiling members for unconditionally loving their children -- and even extended family members."
But the family's support of Kat Cooper was as good as an endorsement of homosexuality, said Ken Willis, minister at Ridgedale Church of Christ.
"The sin would be endorsing that lifestyle," Willis said. "The Bible speaks very plainly about that."
Willis, a father himself, said the church didn't expect the Cooper family to disown their daughter.
"But you certainly can't condone that lifestyle, whether it's any kind of sin -- whether they're shacked up with someone or living in a state of fornication or they're guilty of crimes," he said. "You don't condone it. You still love them as a parent."
Hunt Cooper, Kat's father, said his wife is still too distraught over the church's actions to comment.
"She is just so traumatized and so upset," he said. "It has been days and she's still crying. It's almost like losing a family member."
Linda Cooper's parents were practically founding members of the Dodds Avenue congregation, Hunt Cooper said. Her father was a church elder and his picture still hangs on the wall there. Kat Cooper grew up helping her grandfather clean the pews and helped her grandmother hang bulletin boards for Sunday school.
"This is not just some casual church they dropped in on," he said.
Hunt Cooper said his family rejects the notion that being gay is a lifestyle choice. And his wife, along with her brother and sister, believed repentance would be hypocritical. So the decision to leave, devastating as it was, was a simple one.
"There's no sin to repent for," he said. "And she's not going to turn her back on her daughter."
Church of Christ congregations are mostly independent of one another, with church elders and ministers setting the tone at each. So the Coopers suspect church authorities are mostly behind their confrontation. Many congregation members didn't even know of the situation, Hunt Cooper said.
In the South, it's not uncommon for families of gay people to feel unwelcome or shunned at church, said Matt Nevels, the presiding officer of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Nevels was a longtime minister at Red Bank Baptist Church, but left in 1995 because of the church's hard-line stance on homosexuality. His own views on the matter were shaped by his son, Stephen, who announced he was gay before dying of AIDS.
Through PFLAG, Nevels regularly meets with parents and other family members of gays and lesbians. And it's commonplace for the revelation of a gay son or daughter to put family members on the rocks with their church communities.
"Most of the churches in this area are homophobic," Nevels said. "So it's not unusual for things like that to happen."
But usually the distance grows subtly. A cold shoulder. A sense that you no longer fit it. It's uncommon that people are delivered such an overt message, as was the case for the Coopers.
"I've never heard it extended to other family members like that," he said. "That is definitely an extreme case."
But Willis, Ridgedale's minister, says the church regularly approaches people to repent for all sorts of sin. Church leaders have given other members a similar choice to repent or leave for sins such as living together before marriage, he said. And the Coopers' battle was public, captured by television cameras and newspaper stories, giving the church no choice but to take action.
"When a person is in sin they are asked to repent, to make a statement, renouncing their participation in sin," he said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.