Mississippi church a window into national gay rights debate

In this April 9, 2016 photo, senior pastor Warren Coile, of St. Mark's United Methodist Church poses for a photo in Brandon, Miss.  Coile believes that the diversity of any church can be a strength-even if there are honest, passionate disagreements about strongly-held beliefs. Among the church's members are a same sex couple and their daughter, who often attend the same services as does Mississippi's Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who recently signed House Bill 1523, legislation that will allow government workers, religious groups and some private businesses to cite deeply held religious beliefs to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

In this April 9, 2016 photo, senior pastor Warren Coile, of St. Mark's United Methodist Church poses for a photo in Brandon, Miss. Coile believes that the diversity of any church can be a strength-even if there are honest, passionate disagreements about strongly-held beliefs. Among the church's members are a same sex couple and their daughter, who often attend the same services as does Mississippi's Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who recently signed House Bill 1523, legislation that will allow government workers, religious groups and some private businesses to cite deeply held religious beliefs to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

BRANDON, Miss. (AP) — On many Sundays, conservative Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant can be found in the sanctuary at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, almost always in his trademark suit and boots, often among those helping pass the offering plates.

In the same sanctuary — sometimes just a few wooden pews away — are Jan Smith and Donna Phillips, a same-sex couple who are also active in the suburban Jackson church and have a 9-year-old daughter named Hannah.

The couple has fought Mississippi’s ban on gay adoptions while Bryant has opposed same-sex marriage and recently signed a bill allowing government workers, religious groups and some private businesses to cite deeply held religious beliefs to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“Trust me — the dichotomy of Phil Bryant and Jan and Donna sitting in the same sanctuary isn’t lost on anyone,” said Ann Pittman, who has been going to St. Mark’s for 27 years. “As for me, I’m of the opinion that what two grown folks do on their own time is none of my business.”

The juxtaposition of beliefs at this church in the Deep South is a window into a debate in much of the U.S. that sometimes puts friends, neighbors and even fellow church members at odds. At St. Mark’s, members say the conversation is usually cordial, even if there are some uncomfortable moments at a church that has roughly 1,200 members.

St. Mark’s senior pastor Warren Coile believes the diversity of any church is a strength — even if there are passionate disagreements about strongly-held beliefs.

“I believe that God always comes down on the side of grace,” Coile said. “I hope that people here in our church do, too.”

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