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Church barred woman from fishing trip because male pastor wanted to avoid ‘false accusations’ of sexual misconduct

Emily Smaniotto, 27, said she won a church raffle for participation in a fishing trip but was told that she couldn’t join because she’s a woman. (Emily Smaniotto)

Always the outdoor enthusiast, Emily Smaniotto was thrilled to enter a church raffle for a bow-fishing trip. But her excitement faded quickly when she was told that an insurmountable issue stood in the way of winning: her gender.

“I remember the word ‘Really?’ coming out of my mouth,” Smaniotto, 27, said. “And I heard another woman say, ‘Are you serious?’ ”

The issue, church leaders said, was that a woman’s presence on the trip could lead to a bogus accusation of sexual misconduct. The guest pastor who raffled off the opportunity was simply protecting himself, they said.

“Living in the days of sexual scandals and accusations many pastors including myself, take the personal position that we will not put ourselves in a position that could bring about a false accusation and thus bring a multitude of problems, hence why he personally offered them for men only,” Bethel Baptist Church in Uniontown, Pa., wrote on its Facebook page.

The practice appears to be an extrapolation of the common evangelical Christian position that a man should avoid being alone with a woman to protect from suspicions of inappropriate behavior and to keep from cheating on his wife. Known as the “Billy Graham Rule,” the principle is named after the late evangelical pastor, who had a policy of not eating, traveling or meeting alone with a woman besides his spouse.

But in this case, Smaniotto said, four church members would have accompanied the guest pastor on the fishing trip — not just one person. The controversy was first reported by Pittsburgh television station WTAE.

The wild-game dinner at which the raffle took place Saturday was an annual tradition that Smaniotto, a nurse, has participated in with her father for about six years. Guests pay $10 admission to eat from a buffet of bear, raccoon and other game, and then enter their names for a chance to win prizes.

This year, Smaniotto said, the pastor raffling the fishing excursion noted that the event was for men only and advised anyone entering to “make sure you leave your wives at home.” The dinner guests laughed, and Smaniotto said she wondered whether the comment had been a joke.

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Smaniotto, uninterested in the other prizes, saw another woman enter to win the fishing trip and decided to throw her own name into the mix.

Then the speaker drew the other woman’s name. He declined to give her the prize, citing the gender policy. Smaniotto’s name was the next to be chosen, she said, but the guest pastor turned her down, too.

Smaniotto said she was crestfallen. Fishing and hunting are her passions, so the rejection hit hard. She also couldn’t understand it.

“This wasn’t my first go-around with going on a fishing trip with men,” she said, “and I have always been treated equal.”

Church leaders wrote in their statement that the speaker running the raffle, whom they did not name, mentioned the male-only rule twice when people submitted their cards for that prize.

The church leaders added that they tried to contact Smaniotto’s father when they learned she was offended but that he did not respond.

“I would like to sit and talk with them both to express a sincere apology and to assure her it was a lack of communication on our part to explain all the information more clearly and a lesson learned to think things through more clearly so we do not make the same mistake again,” the church’s statement said. “The church highly respects all women and would by no means do anything intentional to make one feel they were discriminated against.”

Representatives of the church declined a request for further comment.

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The idea that men need to simultaneously guard against sexual temptation and the possibility of false accusations stems from the controversial idea that men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable and women need to protect men’s reputations, said Beth Allison Barr, a history professor at Baylor University whose research focuses on women in Christianity.

The result, she said, is a double-edged sword: If an accusation of sexual misconduct arises, the man can say the allegation is unsurprising because women are drawn to make false claims. And if the charge is proved, the man can say that he should never have been alone with the woman because men struggle to control themselves.

“It sort of sets up this idea that women and men can never be friends, and then it sets up all these rules that makes it impossible for women and men to be friends. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Barr, author of “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.”

Then-Vice President Mike Pence (R), perhaps one of the most high-profile adherents to the Billy Graham Rule, came under fire in 2017 for stating years earlier that he does not eat alone with women other than his wife or attend events where alcohol is being served without her. The uproar served as a reminder that ideas about gender continue to be contentious in American culture.

At Bethel Baptist Church, leaders said they offered Smaniotto the chance to go on a separate fishing expedition with her father, instead of the group fishing trip.

But Smaniotto isn’t interested. She said church leaders’ attitudes toward her during the raffle convinced her that they would not treat her fairly in the future.

Instead of her own fishing trip, Smaniotto said, she wants church leaders to treat women equally.

“At future events that that church holds,” she said, “hopefully, they realize that if you’re inviting a woman to an event, you need to be inclusive with anything you offer.”

Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.

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