COLLEGEDALE, Tenn. – Collegedale’s decision to grant benefits to same-sex couples was a victory for Kat Cooper, a gay police 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. The two embraced after the City Council’s 4-1 vote 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 said the church’s stance was the most extreme he’s heard of in years.
Leaders at Ridgedale Church of Christ privately met Aug. 18 with Kat Cooper’s mother, aunt and uncle after the regular worship service. They were given an ultimatum: Repent of 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 the Rev. Ken Willis, Ridgedale’s minister.
“The sin would be endorsing that lifestyle,” Willis said. “The Bible speaks very plainly about that.”
The church didn’t expect the Cooper family to disown their daughter, said Willis, who is a father.
“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 still is 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 practically were founding members of the 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 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. His wife and her brother and sister believe 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.”
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 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.
“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 said 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.
“When a person is in sin they are asked to repent, to make a statement, renouncing their participation in sin,” he said.