ALEXANDRIA — The Steele family in Alexandria has one request. They want their church back.
David Steele and his family, who attend the United Methodist Church in Alexandria, feel their church has been stolen from them. The issue of contention is one that has split churches before: whether a gay man can serve in a leadership position.
Adam Fraley, the man at the center of the controversy, said this is a civil rights issue. He was not re-hired as the church’s choral director because of his sexual orientation.
According to United Methodist Church law, gay people are welcome to attend services but the line is drawn at positions of leadership.
The law states, “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
The question of what "serve" means is a little ambiguous. Dan Gangler, director of communications for the Indiana Conference of the UMC, said the church only prohibits practicing gays being ordained.
"Any other leadership positions should be filled at the discretion of the congregation and the minister," Gangler said.
Fraley, who took the job at the behest of David’s wife, Nancy Steele, six years ago, said he was not openly gay while working at the church. But his partner attended services with him and the Steele family said it was “obvious” Fraley was gay.
Regardless of his orientation, Fraley was the choral director for the church and everyone enjoyed his work. Then, earlier this year, a new minister came in who said he was uncomfortable with Fraley leading the music. Although the minister didn’t fire him, Fraley eventually resigned because of an added work load. He said he felt uncomfortable with the ways things had gone after the new minister came in.
After six months on the job, the church got a new interim minister, David Mantor, in September. Steele, who served as the intermediary between the congregation and the minister, said the church body hoped the new minister would allow Fraley to come back as choir director.
After originally saying he was fine with Fraley coming back, the Steeles said Mantor changed his mind three weeks after he was hired.
The next day Mantor asked for David Steele’s keys, saying he could no longer serve, but David refused to quit. Three weeks later, the district superintendent met with the church leaders and relieved David Steele of his duties. Steele said the district superintendent told him he was no longer supporting the positions of the minister and therefore was neglecting his duty.
David Steele said his family has stopped attending the church, which has been difficult. They aren’t alone either. About 80 percent of the congregation left because of the situation with Fraley.
"They all embraced him," Nancy Steele said. "They're upset about the way he was treated."
Fraley said it was encouraging to see the support the group has for him, especially its demographics. He said getting to know him first was important.
"I think they got to know me first before they knew I was gay," he said.
The overall support for Fraley among the congregation has further upset the Steeles about the minister's stance.
"It's almost like he's hijacked the church," David Steele said. "He is completely going against what the church body wants."
Following what Gangler said, the decision is up to the minister and the congregation. The question is, who has the final say. The Steeles think it should be the congregation, but the district leaders disagreed. The congregation ultimately has the final say on who the minister is.
Fraley said it upset him when the minister said he couldn't have his job back because of his sexual orientation. He decided to talk to The Herald Bulletin because he thinks not giving him a job because he's gay is wrong.
He said along his own journey, he has come to form his own theory about Christianity and homosexuality. He said the law forbidding a man to lay with another man in Leviticus is one of the few Christians still observe.
"I don't like how people pick and choose which verses they want to apply," said Fraley, who considers himself a Christian. "The Bible also says gluttony and divorce are bad but people seem to ignore those."
The discussion among churches about the issues of homosexuality is one that has split many congregations before. Fraley said more churches are allowing gays to come to worship and become members of the church, but they still believe they are living in sin. Others have taken a different interpretation of the Bible.
Fraley said the fact that he is gay has no bearing on how he conducts the worship or how people hear the worship. The experience is not lessened or enhanced because he's gay.
Ultimately, Fraley said he would come back if offered the job. The Steeles would also return if the fences were mended, but they're not sure if that will ever happen.
They said they feel bad for the older members of the church who have also stopped attending the church because of the feud. Nancy Steele said the church family is all some of these people have.
Follow Zach Osowski on Twitter @Osowski_THB, or call 640-4847.
By the numbers The United Methodist Church saw a drop of 71,000 members in 2011, the last year numbers were available. While the church is declining in the U.S., membership is increasing throughout the world. -- Source: UMC.org