Mayor roasted for honoring church with anti-gay history. He says he’d do it again.

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It wasn’t just another church that Mayor Dean Trantalis honored last month. It was a church he had picketed against 30 years ago over anti-gay rhetoric from its late founder.

And for that, he has been vilified in recent weeks by the gay press, which objected to the mayor honoring Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church with an official proclamation March 16.

Trantalis, Fort Lauderdale’s first openly gay mayor, fully expected the backlash, he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday. But he would do it all over again.

Trantalis still recalls all the bad things the church had to say about gay men.

“The church was saying we were child molesters,” he said. “That we need to choose Christ over our hedonism. And through conversion therapy we’d be saved. They were against same-sex couples, gay adoptions, you name it.”

But that was then, he says.

“To me, building bridges is more important than holding onto old grudges,” Trantalis said. “And if there’s one thing we learned in the past four years, the dark side of life does not bring a community forward. It only breeds more division and mistrust. We need to grow as a society, and the only way to do that is to start talking to one another.”

With that in mind, Trantalis issued a joint statement with Lead Pastor Rob Pacienza this week saying they are intent on building bridges in the spirit of forgiveness and friendship.

“A written statement was meant to serve as evidence to the doubters that we are making progress,” Trantalis said. “The point wasn’t to calm things down. The point was to show the community the type of progress we’re making. I don’t feel threatened by the negativity. There are people who will never let it go. But I’m not trying to appeal to them. I’m trying to appeal to people who want a loving community rather than one that harbors mistrust.”

But the proclamation riled many in the gay community, who questioned whether the church has truly changed.

One who was doubtful was Marc Paige, who sent a letter to the entire commission this week in response to the mayor’s joint statement.

“Westminster Academy has a policy banning children living with gay parents,” he wrote. “There is nothing ‘beautiful’ about trying to destroy gay families, punishing a child with gay parents, or degrading the self-esteem of a young person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That is not ‘religious freedom.’ That is child abuse.”

‘Those are just words’

Commissioner Steve Glassman, who objected to the proclamation, was equally unimpressed.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “The statement is ambitious, and it’s a wonderful goal. But those are just words. I’m looking for action. I’m looking to see a change in policy from the church and the school and the Kennedy ministries. There’s little evidence there has been any change in policy and philosophy and rhetoric.”

The late Rev. D. James Kennedy founded the church, its Christian school Westminster Academy and its broadcast ministry partner — D. James Kennedy Ministries. All three entities share the campus at 5555 N. Federal Highway in north Fort Lauderdale.

Vice Mayor Heather Moraitis, who attends Coral Ridge Presbyterian along with her family, requested the proclamation to honor the church’s 60th anniversary.

“I understand if there’s still some mistrust and reservations about Coral Ridge,” she said Wednesday. “We need to come together and work alongside one another. I do want to make this the best city for the LGBTQ community to live and to thrive. I do believe we can work alongside each other.”

Rightfully outraged

In a letter sent along with the joint statement, the mayor explained the controversy.

“Thirty years ago, I picketed Dr. Kennedy with many of my LGBT colleagues,” he wrote. “There were rhetoric and deeds that denigrated all of us who are gay, lesbian or transgender. We were rightfully outraged.”

He also shared a story about his late friend and colleague, Justin Flippen, who died last year while mayor of Wilton Manors.

“He told me how he underwent two years of conversion therapy at Coral Ridge when he was in high school,” Trantalis wrote. “Simply put — that was wrong.”

But, Trantalis goes on to say, Fort Lauderdale is an evolving community.

“There is more that unites us than divides us,” the mayor says in the joint statement.

Trantalis says he’s been meeting with religious leaders — including Pastor Pacienza — over the past four years to increase mutual respect and understanding within the Fort Lauderdale community where it did not exist before.

Pacienza was also not surprised by the fiery response sparked by the proclamation.

“I knew there would be pushback,” he said. “I lament that we live in such a polarizing time. But I’m grateful for that the mayor has done and what he continues to do to find common ground.”

Glassman spoke against the proclamation last month, arguing that just the mention of the James Kennedy and the church he founded brings back bad memories for many in the LGBTQ+ community.

Times have changed

That night, Trantalis argued that times had changed and so had the leaders of the church.

Since issuing the joint statement on Monday, Trantalis says he’s received several letters of support from residents both gay and straight. In just two days, 28 letters flowed into City Hall congratulating Trantalis for having the inspiration and bravery to speak his mind while working to build common ground.

“Excellent!” one woman wrote. “Mend bridges for sure.”

Another supporter praised his letter: “I have seen in various posts the ‘abuse’ Dean has gotten over ... that church and so glad he cleared the air.”

Still another wrote: “Kudos for the letter! As you already know there are always going to be people on any side who won’t put down their armor! You are going in the right direction and I’m happy to see not looking in that rearview mirror that keeps people from seeing the future.”

Fort Lauderdale activist Michael Albetta says he still remembers Trantalis telling him 20 years ago that sometimes you have to sit down and talk to your enemy and hear what he has to say.

“And that’s what he has done,” said Albetta, regional director of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus. “Moving forward, something good is going to happen out of this. You can picket and picket, but don’t forget about moving forward. Dean Trantalis did the right thing. You have an openly gay mayor addressing the church now. You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan