Gay bishop gets role at Obama inauguration event

BOSTON Mon Jan 12, 2009 5:58pm GMT

New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in a file photo. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

BOSTON (Reuters) - An openly gay bishop will deliver a prayer for President-elect Barack Obama in an inauguration event on Sunday that could help defuse controversy over an anti-gay pastor who will give the main invocation.

New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, at the center of the Anglican church's global battle over homosexuality, will speak on Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

"I'm just overwhelmed and so humbled by this invitation," Robinson said in a telephone interview.

Many Democratic Party activists and gay rights advocates who supported Obama sharply criticized his choice of Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor, to give the invocation when the next president takes office on January 20, saying it undermined the Democrat's vows of inclusiveness.

Robinson has called the choice of Warren a slap in the face. But he said on Monday he did not believe Obama invited him in response to the Warren criticism but his prayer would help ease concerns among gay and lesbians.

He said he believed the invitation, which came about two weeks ago, was made because he endorsed Obama in May last year. The two also met during the presidential primary.

"But this will certainly not go unnoticed in the gay and lesbian community," he said. "It's important for the people to feel represented."

Warren, pastor of a megachurch in southern California, is known for campaigning against poverty and disease, but he also advocated California Proposition 8, the state gay marriage ban passed by voters in November.

Obama opposed California's ban on gay marriage. He generally has said he supports equal rights under the law for same-sex couples. Some religious conservatives said the choice of Warren showed Obama was willing to reach out to them.

Robinson said he advised Obama several times during his presidential campaign.

"I was very early on taken with his anti-polarization message," he said. "So part of the invitation came out of the albeit brief relationship that we have had."

The 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a global federation of national churches, has been in upheaval since 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated Robinson as the first bishop known to be in an openly homosexual relationship in more than four centuries of church history.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Joe Solmonese, president of gay rights advocates the Human Rights Campaign, called Robinson's selection "encouraging."

"Bishop Robinson models what prayer should be -- spiritual reflection put into action for justice," he said.

Robinson, who last year entered into a civil union with his longtime partner in New Hampshire, said his prayer would focus on inclusiveness.

"It will certainly be a message that everyone in the nation can identify with. And part of the prayer will be for President Obama but also I am going to include words of prayer for the nation and what I think we are called upon to do," he said.

(Editing by David Wiessler)