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Gay rights groups protest choice of pastor to speak at St. Petersburg MLK event

The Rev. Ja?mal Harrison Bryant is the pastor of Em?pow?er?ment Temple.
The Rev. Ja?mal Harrison Bryant is the pastor of Em?pow?er?ment Temple.
Published Jan. 6, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Prominent local gay rights organizations are asking that a nationally known African-American pastor who has made inflammatory remarks about gay people be disinvited as the keynote speaker at the 30th annual MLK Leadership Awards Breakfast.

And St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has declined a request to give the ceremonial key to the city to the speaker, the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant.

As pastor of Empowerment Temple, a 10,000-member mega-church in Baltimore, Bryant has built a national following. Aside from a bombastic speaking style, he has called homosexuality a sin that's on par with drug addiction and gambling.

"Homosexuality is not the only sin," Bryant said in a video posted to YouTube in 2012. "But it is a sin. It is not an alternative lifestyle. It is an alternative rebellion."

Susan McGrath, chairwoman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party and president of the Stonewall Democrats, said Bryant's views contradict the message of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She said Bryant's stance is "hateful" and "bigoted" and mars St. Petersburg's image as a diverse, welcoming city.

"The city has made a lot of progress," McGrath said. "It casts an unfair shadow on St. Petersburg."

McGrath attended last year's banquet, but said she won't attend this year if Bryant speaks.

Eric Skains, executive director of St. Pete Pride, said he was disappointed that Bryant is slated to speak, despite his group's objections.

"Hopefully, the organization comes to the right side of the equation on this," Skains said.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, however, is standing by the choice. Married to Angela Rouson, the organizer of the Jan. 18 event at the Coliseum, the Democratic St. Petersburg lawmaker said Bryant should be allowed to speak.

"I'm certainly not going to jump on the bandwagon," Darryl Rouson said on Tuesday, referring to requests to revoke Bryant's invitation.

Rouson said he thought the event could be used as an opportunity for Bryant to change his views on gay marriage.

Bryant has criticized those in his church who accept homosexuality as "cowards" and called President Barack Obama's support for gay marriage an example of political expediency.

"I'm scared of all these civil rights leaders and all these preachers kissing up to the president just because he's black," Bryant said in the 2012 video. "He's black and wrong. He's black and out of order."

In supporting Bryant's keynote appearance, Rouson said he wasn't speaking for his wife, who couldn't be reached, or her organization, a chapter of the National Council of Negro Women Inc.

Kriseman's chief of staff, Kevin King, said he had been contacted by the Stonewall Democrats about Bryant's appearance.

He said the city researched Bryant weeks ago and decided not to award him with a key to the city. Angela Rouson's organization had requested that the city award Bryant with a key to the city, King said.

Some advertisements for the event, which Darryl Rouson said had sold 1,200 tickets, listed the city as a sponsor. But King said the city didn't provide any money or in-kind services.

The Tampa Bay Times is listed as a sponsor, as are the Edwards Group, Duke Energy, Bright House Networks and St. Petersburg College, according to the group's website.

Times spokeswoman Jounice Nealy-Brown said the paper typically buys a table at the annual event, but couldn't confirm late Tuesday whether it had done so.

"I don't think so," she said when asked if the newspaper knew about Bryant's views. She said the Times doesn't screen keynote speakers at events it helps sponsor.

Attempts to reach Bryant at his church late Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Darryl Rouson said he believes the annual breakfast unites the city regardless of race, class or other divisions.

"That includes sexual orientation," he said. "I'm loath to get into disinviting someone for arcane comments."

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