Leaders of a growing local congregation that advertises itself as "The Cool Church" are telling their parishioners that being gay will take 30 years off a person's life, prompting accusations that they are perpetuating "really uncool, deeply homophobic" lies.
Wingspan, which is Southern Arizona's gay and lesbian community center, criticized the Tucson Community Church in a recent letter to 7,000 supporters.
"Scratch the surface of their clever rhetoric about being hip, welcoming and intellectually curious, and a stream of anti-gay rhetoric spews forth," Wingspan board President Laura Olguin wrote.
The church's senior pastor, David McAllister, said he's presenting nothing but the truth, and he planned to talk about the Wingspan letter during services over the weekend. He said the subject matter goes along with a July Fourth theme of changing the nation.
McAllister was particularly upset with the characterization of his church being uncool.
"I can't imagine anything more uncool than supporting a lifestyle or behavior that would be detrimental to the people who practice it," he said Saturday.
The church's claims about abbreviated life spans for homosexuals, highlighted on its Web site, are not substantiated by science, said Stephen T. Russell, a professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona who has looked over the church's Web site and is familiar with the studies it cites.
The claims are one of the reasons Wingspan decided to re-broadcast a television advertising campaign titled "Neighbors You Know," which features eight members of the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, including a Pima County prosecutor, two local religious leaders and a former U.S. Army sergeant.
The ads, which aired in June, are not tied to a particular issue or political campaign, but instead ask viewers to consider that some of the people they encounter every day could be gay.
Wingspan officials are accustomed to seeing policies from various religious denominations that are disapproving of same-sex relationships. But program director Cathy Busha said the Tucson Community Church has gone to an unacceptable extreme.
"They use pseudo-science and lies to distort the truth," Busha said.
In addition to saying that homosexuals will have shortened lives, the Tucson Community Church's Web site says that gays and lesbians are more likely than heterosexuals to be involved in violence and become addicts of various sorts. Also on the site, the church's leaders, who say being gay is a choice, urge their worshippers to "fight" what they call an onslaught of homosexual-sex activists.
"Our society has been attacked by homosexual activists at every quarter, lying to us about the reality of homosexual sex when they are fully aware of this sin's implications and dangers — fully!" the online site says.
The church, which caters to young families and has more than 2,000 members, recently opened its fourth location in Midtown and calls itself "one of the fastest-growing churches in America." In 2002, McAllister told the Star that growth had been as high as 40 percent per year. Many of its members praise it as a loving place.
The church has been in Tucson since 1992, and county records show it owns local property with a full cash value of $2.5 million.
Some Tucsonans might know McAllister from his church's TV advertisements in which he has appeared with short, spiky blond hair, a gold hoop earring, and jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes — looking more like a rock singer than a pastor.
"Pastor David is just incredible in the way he presents God's word, and he always does it with love," said parishioner Parks Rinehart, 52, an automation equipment assembler who joined the church seven years ago with his then-teenage son. He had tried other churches, but until he found the Tucson Community Church, he never found answers about the Bible that made sense.
Rinehart has seen the church's claims about the life spans of gay people on its Web site, and though he found the numbers to be startling, he said he had no reason to believe they were not true.
McAllister said he isn't surprised that critics are discounting extensive literature on the Tucson Community Church's Web site claiming that fewer than 2 percent of practicing homosexuals are in monogamous relationships, and that violence and sexually transmitted diseases are disproportionately high among gays.
The church literature attributes the statistic about homosexuals and their lack of monogamous relationships, for example, to a study written during the 1970s. Many of the studies it cites are more than a decade old.
In contrast, a 2006 study from the UCLA School of Law, based on U.S. Census data, found the number of same-sex couples in the United States surged by 30 percent between 2000 and 2005. Researchers said one of the reasons could be less stigma in society that is prompting more gays and lesbians to couple, and also to report their relationship to the government.
The church Web site refers to a study conducted by the Colorado-based Family Research Institute during the 1990s to support its statement that being gay will result in a shorter life. The study culled its data from obituaries in gay and lesbian newspapers. The church's literature says the average age of homosexuals dying of non-AIDs-related causes is 41, and that only 1 percent died of old age.
The Family Research Institute, headed by psychologist Paul Cameron, lists its mission as creating a world "where homosexuality is not taught and accepted, but instead is discouraged and rejected at every level." In 2006, the organization was named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"It's a classic thing to come up with one or two studies that support a point of view rather than quoting the other 20 or 50 studies on the same subject that would come to another conclusion," said Russell, the UA professor.
While the church talks about addiction and suicide among homosexuals, Russell said, it doesn't talk about one of the widely accepted triggers of such problems: homophobia. And Russell said there's far too little research that's been conducted on the life spans of homosexuals to draw any solid conclusions.
"Research is complicated," he said. "This church has chosen a very small number of studies that have been resoundingly rejected by the scientific community, or because of the work itself. Studies of obituaries are a case of a bad study — that's hardly a reasonable way to conduct science."
But Paul and Joan Cross, members of the Tucson Community Church for more than four years, say the critics simply don't know their church. They said homosexuality is one of many sins listed in the Bible. Neither could recall statements on the church's Web site about the life spans and health of gay people.
Paul Cross, 54, who works at an engineering firm, said McAllister makes the Bible easy to understand.
Church member Rinehart said his feelings toward gays and lesbians are hurt and sadness.
"They don't realize the destructive lifestyle they are living," he said.
"Money, sex, drugs, stealing, killing, prostitution — you name it. We all have problems. We all sin. Jesus told us we can't be perfect. That's why we need him."
The Rev. Briget Nicholson, who is the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ and is in a same-sex relationship, has a different biblical interpretation.
"Anytime one of us is trying to make a box and create insiders and outsiders in the name of God, that is a dangerous weapon," she said. "As a person who believes Jesus said, 'Love your neighbors as yourself,' I don't think that's their business."
On the net
To read more about the Tucson Community Church's beliefs on homosexuality, go tohttp://www.thecoolchurch.com/homsexual.html
Information about Wingspan, Arizona's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community center, is at http://www.wingspan.org/