News

Anti-gay crusader joins with Russian evangelicals

A longtime foe of gay causes has allied himself with a network of Slavic
evangelical churches that claim thousands of members in the Sacramento area.
The association and an increasingly active political stance by these
churches has provided foot soldiers for anti-gay rallies at the Capitol and
local high schools.

Dick Otterstad has stood outside a Wal-Mart in a Santa Claus suit to demand
the use of the phrase “Merry Christmas” and has picketed the house of
Michael Newdow, the Roseville-area atheist who wants to have the words
“under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. He claims a political
agenda calling not just for a ban on gay marriage but also the reinstatement
of anti-sodomy laws and the abolition of public schools.

For years, Otterstad has proclaimed these causes from the 20-member Church
of the Divide, where he serves as community-outreach coordinator. The
non-denominational church in Garden City, near Placerville, is “a local
assembly of Bible-believing Christians,” according to its Web site. He said
that church members own some of the pickup trucks seen near the Capitol and
elsewhere, covered in billboards opposing gay marriage and abortion. These
activities, he said, really got going after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom
began performing gay marriages in 2004.

In recent months, Otterstad said he began looking for allies among
Sacramento’s fast-growing Slavic community. Many of these newcomers have
gathered in evangelical churches primarily Southern Baptist and Pentecostal
denominations.

“American churches are messed up,” Otterstad said. “The Slavic church
members know first-hand what it’s like to live in a country that persecutes
religious belief. They heard that this was a Christian country and there was
freedom here, then they came here and found out it was not so.”

Otterstad’s name is on an initiative to ban domestic partnerships in
California, along with the names of two Slavic evangelicals: Ivan Megediuk,
Nikolay Bugriyev. However, Otterstad said the initiative was only a
precaution against further gay-marriage action from the California
Legislature and will not be on the November ballot.

Megediuk is a pastor and president of the Slavic Community Center in
Sacramento. He is also secretary for both the Slavic Pastor’s Association,
which meets in the Center, and the Missionary Gospel Church. Bugriyev is the
church’s president. Megeduik said that Pastor’s Association has
representatives from about 50 different churches, with memberships of up to
4,000 each.

Last year, Megediuk said Otterstad began coming to meetings of the Slavic
Pastor’s Association. Earlier this year, in the wake of a failed
anti-domestic-partnership initiative from the California Family Council,
they decided to launch their own initiative effort.

Otterstad described his interactions with Slavic Evangelicals as “loose
affiliation.” He added that this is part of a larger nationwide movement
that will see churches more directly involved in politics.

“We have been doing this stuff for longer and we’re a little more
experienced with the political process,” Otterstad said. “But they do a lot
of stuff on their own.”

Probably the most visible of these actions has been a series of anti-gay
protests at local high schools. Thirteen students at Oakmont High School in
Roseville were suspended last month for wearing T-shirts that said,
“Homosexuality is a sin.” Similar incidents have occurred in at least two
other high schools, as students protested a national “Day of Silence” to
promote tolerance of homosexuals. Most of these families send their children
to public schools, Otterstad said, and are livid over efforts to normalize
homosexuality.

“If you want to tick off the Russians, that’s what you do,” Otterstad said.
All of the suspended students are from Slavic backgrounds, said Kevin
Snider, chief counsel of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is providing a
legal defense for the students. He added that many of them are members of
the Third Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church. Snider said the students are
all back in school but are challenging the legitimacy of their suspensions.
They also are asking the school and district to respect their First
Amendment free-speech rights and provide a safe campus.

“They have received a significant number of threats from other students,”
Snider said.

The school protest movement has gained new life due to SB 1437 by Sen.
Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica. The bill, which mandates that history
textbooks in California schools “include the contributions” of gays and
lesbians, passed the Senate May 12 and is now headed for the Assembly. In
recent days, Snider said Slavic church members have “packed out” recent
school-board meetings in the Roseville and San Juan districts. Another
Slavic was suspended from Sacramento’s Mira Loma High School on Tuesday,
Otterstad said.

The high proportion of Slavic evangelicals at recent anti-gay protests has
been noted, said Dale Kelly Bankhead, campaign director for the gay rights
group Equality for All.

“It’s pretty clear they have had more of presence recently,” Bankhead said
“We’ll see how real it is. It doesn’t seem like anything is going on besides
periodic protests.”

Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is the openly gay Assemblyman who wrote the AB
849, a gender-neutral marriage initiative. He said that another longtime
California-based foe of gay rights, Randy Thomasson of the Campaign for
Children and Families, has been working with Slavic evangelicals for almost
two years. Thomasson bused in over 100 of them to protest at an August 2005
hearing on AB 849. He brought in more Slavic evangelicals for a protest
Queer Youth Day at the Capitol last month.

“The great irony is that these people leave these oppressive countries and
what do they do when they get here?” Leno said. “They get used as fodder to
trample on the civil rights of Americans.”

In 2004, Otterstad ran for school board in the Black Oak Mine district,
getting 37 percent of the vote. He said he plans to run again on a platform
of abolishing the public school system. This system was not established
until around 1840, when educator and anti-slavery crusader Horace Mann
established a system of public education in Massachusetts; it is “not
indigenous,” Otterstad said.

“Free people don’t have the government educating their children,” Otterstad
said.

He added that he has been in touch with many Slavic evangelicals who are
also running for school boards in the Sacramento area, but said he did not
know if any had adopted his “abolitionist” platform. Otterstad added that he
discusses issues with his new Slavic evangelical allies “as they come up”
and couldn’t comment on whether any had adopted one of his other long-term
goals: bringing back anti-sodomy laws.

His own long-term hope is to get to the country back to the way it was
before 1960 in terms of gay rights, Otterstad said–a time when all 50 states
still had anti-sodomy laws on the books. The American Psychiatric
Association also still defined homosexuality as a “mental disorder.”
Otterstad said that he doesn’t want to criminalize homosexuality, but push
it back out of the public sphere.

“As long as you did not make it public, you were OK,” Otterstad said. “We
don’t want to get police in people’s bedrooms.”


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: