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Transplant targets gay marriage

Ex-lawmaker from Georgia rallies his ardent followers

He has become a common sight in the Massachusetts State House, the polite, gray-haired, mustached man with the Southern drawl. Last week, he walked a third-floor hallway, tending to a flock of men and women with yellow "Support Ma & Pa" stickers plastered to their chests.

Ronald A. Crews calls these people his "faithful laborers and foot soldiers" in the battle for a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to the union of a man and a woman. The measure was drafted by the Massachusetts Family Institute, of which Crews became president just over three years ago, after a career spent as a minister to Atlanta- area congregations. In those three years, the 55-year-old former Georgia state lawmaker has become one of this state's most visible champions of traditional values.

Outside the House chamber, a red-haired mother of two asked Crews if she was doing any good, appearing on Beacon Hill to try to influence lawmakers. "It does help," Crews told his novice lobbyist, pressing printed talking points into her hands. "It's better than a phone call." The son of a Pentecostal minister, Crews says he wants to lead people toward another Great Awakening in Massachusetts, "an awakening again of our Judeo-Christian heritage and values, that there are such things as moral absolutes." His articles of faith: that church and state should go hand in hand; that marriage between one man and one woman is the foundation of a healthy society; that homosexuality is unnatural, immoral, and reversible; that legislating rights for gays and lesbians would be for the state to promote a lifestyle of disease and torment.

Those views might find more fertile soil in Crews's Georgia church than in Massachusetts, but he says he is finding "a taproot of conservative values in this state."

Even his opponents on the marriage amendment concede the man leading the charge has been an effective advocate. "He is an excellent spokesman for them," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "He is articulate, and he presents their case very effectively and powerfully, albeit not honestly, as far as we're concerned. I'm impressed with his presentation, but not with his ideology."

Crews, the seventh of eight children, wanted to be a pastor like his father. But Joe Crews told his son that wasn't his decision: God had to call him. In his freshman year at Stetson University in Florida, where he had won a music scholarship for his trumpet-playing, Ronald Crews got what he called "an impression inside of me."

"The phrase that came to my mind was, `Prepare to defend my work,' " he said. Joe Crews said that sounded like a call to him, so his son changed majors and became a minister.

At Stetson, he met his wife, Jonda, and the couple now have three daughters and one son. Crews served as an Army chaplain for a while, then became pastor of his own church in the Atlanta area. In 1991, Crews says he heard another calling and entered politics, winning a seat in the Georgia Legislature. He wore his pastor's robe to his swearing-in.

"The so-called wall of separation [between church and state] is not in any of our founding documents," Crews said, in an interview in his Newton office last week. "There is nothing to say government has to be devoid of faith."

Crews immediately put his faith into action, forming a legislators' prayer group, and proposing bills that reflected conservative Christian priorities.

In 1996, he won passage of a Defense of Marriage Act for Georgia, legislation that restricted marriage to heterosexual unions. He was a leader in the fight to pass a state ban on what opponents of the procedure call partial birth abortions, which passed in 1997. He fought for legislation to allow "covenant marriage," a type of union that, if agreed to by both parties, makes divorces far more difficult, requiring spouses to enter counseling, prove adultery or abuse, or live apart for two years. The legislation did not pass.

He also lobbied the Georgia Department of Education to teach creationism in the classroom, without success. (Crews said he will not push for creationism in Massachusetts, saying, "That would be way down the road."

Surprising his critics, Crews also sponsored legislation to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia flag, an effort that yielded little beyond death threats from what he now describes as "the so-called Christian right." He lost his seat in 1998, and Crews says the flag bill "was probably the primary reason." He added another reason: "the homosexual activists who moved into my district just to be able to vote against me." After a stint at the Georgia Christian Coalition, Crews heard about an opening in Massachusetts and sent his resume. He said he never expected them to be interested in somebody "from south of the Mason-Dixon line."

Now Crews is up against a different state's gay activists, as several legislators have filed bills to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, and the Supreme Judicial Court decides whether to grant them marriage licenses. For Crews, preserving marriage as a strictly heterosexual union is preserving healthy citizens for future generations.

For Crews, heterosexual marriage is the crucible in which gender identity and heterosexuality are made. If children do not have one parent of each sex, they have trouble defining their own gender and relating to members of the opposite sex, he said. He said sex between two men is "biologically" incorrect (a view supported, he says, by the fact that it "results in a number of diseases, and not just AIDS") and that it is immoral.

He added that gays and lesbians are made, not born. "There is no scientific data I have seen that supports a so-called gay gene," he said.

He cites a 1997 International Journal of Epidemiology study of gay men in Vancouver, British Columbia, that used deaths from AIDS between 1987 and 1992, when the epidemic was at its height, and that concluded the average homosexual life expectancy was 45.

"Do we want the state to, as it were, to put its blessing and financial reward on a lifestyle that, if pursued, according to the current data, will result in people dying younger?" he said. "I don't think so."

Much of the current science contradicts Crews' assertions, specialists said.

"If you specifically look at the children of lesbian parents or gay men, nobody has demonstrated gender effects in contrast to normal children," said Dr. Heino F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University.

Studies that have shown shorter lifespans for gay men based on deaths from AIDS are fundamentally flawed, said Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. None of the studies has yet been able to gather a large enough sample of subjects, and has been based on the obituaries of openly gay men. Further, the 1997 data were based on death rates before protease inhibitors drastically cut the mortality rate, he said.

"Using those figures is shameful," said Amy Hunt, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Aging Project. "I think it's irrelevant to the debate. And frankly, I think it's a little weird."

Crews says there is nothing personal in his efforts. "I hold no animosity towards anyone who chooses what they want to do," he said. "I don't believe we ought to change the institution of marriage, but I don't hold any animosity."

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