Preceded by a storm of controversy, Anita Bryant brought her campaign against homosexuals to the Southern Baptist Convention here last night.
She had been invited to address one of the sessions preceding the annual gathering of the 13-million-member denomination.
Atlanta's gay community, said to be the third-largest in the nation, has been mobilizing for weeks to protest her appearance here.
"We are not objecting to her coming and speaking," said Victor Host, coordinator of the Atlanta Gay Rights Alliance. He explained that demonstrators whogathered in a city park and marched to Atlanta's World Congress Center, where the convention sessions are being held, were "not picketing the Southern Baptist Convention. What we are demonstrating and picketing against is what she [WORD ILLEGIBLE] convention.
The demonstrators, in turn, were picketed by a group calling itself "Concerned Christians," the backbone of which consisted of Baptists and others who chartered seven buses from Charlotte [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to demonstrate their antigay convictions and their support for Bryant, who led the fight last year to repeal a Dade County, Fla., ordinance barring discrimination against homosexuals.
In the plaza outside the massive convention center, a beefed-up police contingent kept the two groups separated.
While Southern Baptists and other "Bible-believing Christians" - those who take the Bible literally - have been the backbone of Bryant's antigay campaign, some church leaders have mixed feelings about her stand.
"I would say that 80 percent" of the church's membership "sees her as a strong voice for morality, speaking out on what the Bible says on sex," said Jack Harwell, editor of Christian Index, official publication of the Georgia Baptist Convention, one of the largest and most influential conventions in the denomination.
The other 20 percent, in which he included many church leaders, "see it as a civil rights issue," he said.
Harwell made no bones about the Bible condemns homosexuality as sin, and, therefore, "Baptists would never condone the practice of homosexuality." At the same time, he said, "homosexuals are entitled to their civil rights just the same as I am."
It is widely expected here that Bryant will be nominated from the floor later this week to be the vice president of the denomination - whose 13 million members make it the Prostestants' largest one - a proposal that Harwell denounced editorially last week.
"The vice presidency is not a medal to be passed around to this year's crusader," he said. "She has never held an office in the convention; she is not qualified to be vice president."
At the same time, he predicted that if Bryant is nominated, she will be elected. "People admire her because she took a position on the Bible and sex. They see her as someone who took a strong stand and who suffered for it. They see her as a victim of the establishment," he said.
Some Baptists leaders pointed out that the meeting Bryant was invited to address last night is not the convention itself, which does not open until tomorrow, but rather the Pastors' Conference, a two-day session of virtually nonstop preaching, praying and singing that annually precedes the convention.
"She wouldn't have been asked to address the convention," Harwell said.
The Rev. Baley Smith of Bel City, Okla., president of the Pastors' Conference, said he had thought about conceling Bryant's appearance when he learned of plans for the gay protest. "But I thought if her own people will not stand up for her, who will?" he asked. He termed her appearance last night an opportunity to show Atlanta and the nation Christian standards.