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New Horizons

Fighting the Good Fight in San Francisco

Danny E. Olinger

Thirty-one years ago, the Rev. Charles McIlhenny accepted a call to serve as pastor of First Orthodox Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Little did Chuck or his wife, Donna, know what the Lord had in store for them as they began to serve First Church and the community in which they lived. In 1978, Chuck fired the organist for First OPC when he learned that the organist was a practicing homosexual. The organist sued the McIlhennys, First OPC, and the Presbytery of Northern California for violating a city ordinance banning discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. As far as many scholars can determine, this was the first time in U.S. legal history that immorality had taken on the church for fulfilling its God-given responsibility within the parameters of biblical worship.

With the help of attorney John Whitehead and the financial support of hundreds of individuals and churches across the country to pay for the legal costs, the McIlhennys won the case by arguing protection under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits governmental interference with the free exercise of religion. As a result of their stand, the McIlhennys have endured great suffering. Particularly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, as a result of the negative media coverage surrounding the lawsuit against them, they were vandalized, had graffiti sprayed on their property, received death threats, and suffered a firebombing of their home and church from which they had to flee with their three young children in hand. And yet, throughout such persecution, they counted it a blessing to have the opportunity to give witness to Jesus Christ in such a hostile environment.

In recent months, the allowance of "same-sex marriages" in San Francisco has put the McIlhennys back in the spotlight. Along with the Rev. Carl Erickson (pastor of New Covenant OPC in South San Francisco) and elder Ralph Montgomery, they have found themselves again on the front lines in that city. Although California law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom sanctioned same-sex marriages in February. In doing so, Mayor Newsom cited the California Constitution, which bars discrimination, and claimed that he was duty-bound to follow this higher authority rather than the state laws prohibiting same-sex marriages.

The California Supreme Court halted San Francisco's gay marriages in March at the request of Attorney General William Lockyer. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger worried that Mayor Newsom's precedent, if allowed to stand, would encourage legal anarchy, with local officials determining autonomously which laws to obey. McIlhenny and others petitioned the California Supreme Court to halt the marriages, and Mr. Montgomery filed suit in the Superior Court in San Francisco to do the same.

On April 14, Chuck and Donna, along with a group of ministers, met with Mayor Newsom and confronted him with biblical teaching on this issue. During the meeting, Chuck presented Mayor Newsom with a copy of the McIlhennys' book, When the Wicked Seize a City, and told him about the lawsuits, vandalism, firebombing, and attacks against their church and family. From Romans 13, Chuck told Mayor Newsom that as mayor of the city he functioned as a minister of God. He further told the mayor that he needed to repent, believe in Christ, and stop supporting same-sex marriages.

That same day, the McIlhennys participated in a press conference on the steps of the city courthouse. Then, on April 25, they helped to organize a public demonstration against same-sex marriages, which an estimated seven thousand people attended. Chuck also had the opportunity to debate this issue at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

Before Mayor Newsom, during the press conference, at the demonstration, and during the debate, Chuck essentially delivered the same message. First, he issued a call to repentance. Second, he admonished the authorities to stop same-sex marriages. Third, he urged that the law of God be obeyed. And, finally, he proclaimed the need to turn to Christ.

This has been Chuck's consistent message over the years in his efforts to reach the city of San Francisco for Christ. He repeatedly tells others that homosexuality is not the unpardonable sin. As sinful as such behavior and attitudes are, homosexuals are not beyond the supernatural power of God to bring them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. The message to homosexuals in San Francisco from the McIlhennys has always been the same: You must repent of your sinful ways and turn to Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

However, in a city billed as a model of tolerance, San Francisco is intolerant of anyone who opposes the gay rights movement or any of its objectives. It is part of the gay agenda to vilify anyone who stands against the political and social normalization of sexual behavior that the Bible clearly condemns as sinful. But such vilification has not deterred the McIlhennys, First OPC, or the Presbytery of Northern California from standing up for Christ. They take comfort from the words of the apostle Paul, "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake" (Phil. 1:29).

Part of the Presbytery of Northern California's response to the events in San Francisco was to formulate a resolution against same-sex marriages (see sidebar). The Seventy-first General Assembly commended the Presbytery of Northern California for taking a faithful stand against such marriages. Please continue to pray for the McIlhennys, First OPC, and the Presbytery as they bring forth the good news that is found in Jesus Christ to those living in spiritual darkness in San Francisco.

The author is the editor of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 2004.

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