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Orange Pastor Quits After Gay Club Flap

Tom Reinhart-Marean had criticized school district's ban on group.

March 18, 2000|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pastor of a Methodist church who publicly criticized a school board's ban of a gay-straight club at a high school in Orange has resigned after a rift with congregants who say he misrepresented his personal opinions as those of the church.

While it was "strongly suggested" by officers for the First United Methodist Church of Orange that he resign over the dispute about the club, pastor Tom Reinhart-Marean said it was only the latest in a string of conflicts with some in the 500-member congregation.

"The environment there had become toxic, and one cannot work in a toxic environment," said Reinhart-Marean, who was appointed in 1996, along with his wife, the Rev. Holly Reinhart-Marean. "I would likely have left the church on my own even if I hadn't been encouraged to."

The recent trouble started when Reinhart-Marean attended several meetings of the Orange Unified School Board and voiced support for the Gay-Straight Alliance at El Modena High School. He urged the board to allow the club to meet on campus. He also demonstrated his solidarity with students by attaching a rainbow-colored gay pride flag to his wheelchair.

"Homosexuality is an issue of how we're created by God, it's not a matter of lifestyle choice," Reinhart-Marean said in an interview Friday. "It's how we're created, and that's what I believe."

He said his activism on the gay-straight club and other issues reflects his personal opinion.

But several church members who saw their pastor on television were angered by his comments, which they say conflict with Christian beliefs, and they accused Reinhart-Marean of publicly misrepresenting the church's views. They note that he wore his clerical shirt and collar to the school board meetings, and at one demonstration draped a rainbow-colored minister's stole around his neck.

"I just would have liked for him to tell us what he was doing and why he was doing it before he just went out and made his personal opinions all of ours too," said Carol Rathbun, a church secretary. "That's what most people were upset about. Not that he had an opinion, but how he voiced that opinion."

Reinhart-Marean insisted that he participated in the gay-straight club issue as a private citizen. And while some religion experts warn church leaders to be "painstakingly clear" about that when addressing political issues or the public, they say a clergy member's right to free speech cannot be denied.

"Clergy members have been speaking on moral issues since the beginning of time," said Benjamin J. Hubbard, a professor of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. "It's what they do. And pastor or not, you have every right to stand up for the moral dictates of your conscience."

Church members, however, said the club issue came on the heels of mounting tension over Reinhart-Marean, whose sermons took on a political edge that many found uncomfortable or inappropriate.

When the scandal involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky broke, for example, Reinhart-Marean structured his sermon around it, encouraging the congregation to forgive the president for his sins. He opposed Proposition 22, approved last week by state voters, which prevents gay marriages from being legally recognized in California. And his refusal to address God in the traditional gender form of "he" or "our father" has long angered members, they said.

"He would only say 'our creator,' " said Mark Sleenhof, a longtime church member. "It was like our religion was being neutered."

Eventually, Sleenhof said, people began to complain about the pastor's continued injection of personal beliefs in his sermons over the past two years.

The percolating tension finally erupted last Sunday, when Reinhart-Marean delivered his last sermon and announced his resignation. The majority of the congregation--as many as 90%, according to the pastor and several other members--were unaware that he had been asked to leave.

Reinhart-Marean's critics say he used the sermon to take a final jab at the handful of members who had complained to the United Methodist Church's district superintendent about the gay-straight club issue. During a brief children's sermon, Reinhart-Marean told the youngsters he was leaving because "people were spreading lies and rumors" about him, members said.

When the pastor went on to say that once he left, "the real beasts would be exposed," Sleenhof said, he had had enough.

"I got out of my seat in the choir box, walked straight down the center aisle and right out of the church," he said. "His behavior was so inappropriate, so ugly, and the whole thing was definitely the lowest point of my experience in this church."

About 20 others followed Sleenhof out, at which point Reinhart-Marean responded: "That's exactly the type of behavior I'm talking about."

The pastor said Friday he was not trying cause a scene, but rather to explain why he was leaving.

"The congregation is dysfunctional," said Reinhart-Marean, adding that his wife also will be leaving as senior pastor of the church this summer. "It's my thought that by removing myself from the equation . . . [church members] will get some consultation and deal with their inability to resolve conflict and disputes."

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