A church known for its historically anti-gay stance was honored with a special proclamation from the city of Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday night, setting off a firestorm of protest from gay activists.
The proclamation naming March 21 as Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church Day and Westminster Academy Day also put the commission’s two gay members at odds.
Just the mention of the late Rev. D. James Kennedy and the church he founded still brings forth “bad memories and a lot of hurt and pain” for many in the LGBTQ+ community, Vice Mayor Steve Glassman said.
“The wounds are still there,” Glassman said.
But Mayor Dean Trantalis, the city’s first openly gay mayor, suggested it was time to let bygones be bygones.
Trantalis says he’s reached out to members of the faith community in recent years, including the church in question, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
“Times have changed and so have their leaders,” Trantalis said. “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. I know I have. And I know our community is better off for it.”
Glassman praised the mayor for his “wonderful words” but said he wished they’d been part of the proclamation.
The D. James Kennedy Ministries is still listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate groups list — one of 68 in the state of Florida.
In 2019, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by D. James Kennedy Ministries claiming it was damaged after being labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBT views.
“This proclamation makes no mention of the past or present anti-LGBTQ+ actions of the Church, no mention of any apologies,” Glassman said. “It is a sanitized and whitewashed history of Dr. Kennedy and the church.”
Glassman said activists have flooded City Hall with emails, calls and texts in the past few days protesting the proclamation and questioning whether the church and the school it founded 50 years ago still support gay conversion therapy.
“Those issues are still out there,” Glassman said.
The mayor says he has also gotten calls and emails from all over the state.
“But their minds are in the past,” he said.
Resident Marc Paige said he was outraged by the city’s proclamation, calling it a “slap in the face” to the entire LGBT community of South Florida.
Wilton Manors activist Michael Emanuel Rajner also objected.
“The history of this church is heinous, and their attacks on the lives of LGBTQ are grotesque,” he said. “A few years back, the church’s last organized Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast featured John Daly from Focus on the Family, an anti-LGBTQ organization that supports forced conversion therapy to pray away the gay.”
Jeff Black shared his displeasure in an email to the mayor copied to commissioners.
“Bullcrap,” he wrote. “Not until they make a public apology and demonstrate a change for their past hate and organized attacks on our communities. Until then, this is in line with giving the KKK or Nazis an award for not torturing, hanging, or imprisoning their victims for a year while they sang ‘Kum ba yah.’”
The proclamation was brought forth at the request of Commissioner Heather Moraitis, a member of the church who once worked at Westminster Academy.
“It was my idea to recognize the church,” she said. “I am a proud member of the church.”
She shared a bit of family history, telling the commission that her grandfather had 13 children before coming out as a gay man later in life.
She then called on Rob Pacienza, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, to speak.
“The one thing we can come together on is we all love this city,” he said. “Thank you for this honor.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4554