People walk along Olympic Avenue past Lifeway Cafe and Olympic Theater that currently hosts Lifeway Church on Friday, July 7, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People walk along Olympic Avenue past Lifeway Cafe and Olympic Theater that currently hosts Lifeway Church on Friday, July 7, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Arlington churches waged covert ‘battle’ against Pride event, records show

Sermons, emails and interviews reveal how an LGBTQ+ nonprofit became the target of a covert campaign by local evangelical leaders.

ARLINGTON — Evangelical church leaders in Arlington met with city officials last summer in a covert “battle” against a downtown Pride event, according to records newly obtained by The Daily Herald.

The ministers aimed to deter the city from permitting Arlington Pride, a local nonprofit, to host drag performances in public, where children would be present. The nonprofit has led an annual LGBTQ+ event in the city since 2022.

To better understand the churches’ pressure campaign and concerns, The Daily Herald filed a records request with the city in May 2023. Parts of the request remained pending this week.

The Herald also reviewed over 100 sermons from religious leaders at Arlington Lifeway, Calvary Arlington, Jake’s House Church, Atonement Free Lutheran Church and Christ the King Church, finding dozens of examples of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

Emails obtained via records request showed these same church leaders lobbied to influence City Hall in Arlington, in meetings with officials as well as emailed comments.

In one instance, Calvary Arlington Pastor Jim Jacobson raised concerns to the City Council and City Administrator Paul Ellis about a Mother’s Day Drag Brunch at a local bar, ReMyx’d, linking to an article by right-wing journalist and provocateur Andy Ngo, a regular on Fox News.

“This is the kind of thing that is of great concern to myself, and speaking on behalf of the Christian community at large,” Jacobson wrote.

Church leaders sent emails and letters to City Council members, Ellis, then-Mayor Barb Tolbert, City Attorney Steve Peiffle, Police Chief Jonathan Ventura and Community Engagement Director Sarah Lopez, who helps organize city event permits as part of her job.

City officials, however, said the churches did not affect how the city operated.

Congregants from those same churches rallied at City Council meetings against the Pride event and drag performers. In comment after comment, they called Arlington Pride members sexually deviant, asserting transgender people and their allies were demonic sinners sexualizing “little tiny children.”

Church leaders, including Jacobson, belong to a loosely organized Trinitarian Christian group called the “Arlington Ministerial Association.” The organization’s stated goals include “dissemination of information relevant to the broad Christian community.” Pastors associated with the organization met with current and former city officials at least three times. Records show city officials organized at least two other calls with members of the association.

As pressure mounted on the city and Pride organizers, pastors at the pulpit fanned flames condemning the local LGBTQ community.

One of those voices belonged to Arlington Lifeway Pastor Chad Blood. The church sits across the street from Legion Park, where many city events — including Pride — are held. As organizers planned the first Pride event, Blood warned against “unrepentant sin.”

“Scripture is super clear,” Blood preached in May 2022. “In Leviticus 18:22, it says if a man has sexual relations with a man as one does a woman, that is detestable. In Leviticus 20:13, it says if a man has sexual relations with a man as he does a woman, both of them have done what is detestable and they are to be put to death.”

A Lifeway church document called “What Lifeway Believes” states, “The Bible in its entirety (66 books) is to be taken literally except when obviously figurative.”

Blood did not respond to questions from The Herald. It is unclear if he was speaking literally.

‘Such a blessing’

About seven months after his thundering damnation of queer people, the city gave Blood the “Mayor’s Volunteer Award” at a City Council meeting in February 2023. He accepted it on behalf of Lifeway.

“Your community spirit and your community mind is such a blessing to all of us here,” Tolbert, the mayor at the time, said at the meeting. “There probably isn’t a person in this room that hasn’t attended one of our community events that you were in the background or the foreground of with your volunteers.”

Blood hugged Tolbert at the meeting and they posed for a photo later posted to Lifeway’s Instagram. A city team vets awardees, Tolbert said in an email this month.

Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert listens to public comment about Arlington Pride during a city council meeting on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert listens to public comment about Arlington Pride during a city council meeting on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

For years, Blood has been a well-known spiritual leader in Arlington. Following the Oso mudslide, the Arlington Ministerial Association helped host a large memorial service. He was quoted by USA Today during a separate Oso memorial at Legion Park. Media reports at the time put the number of churches in the association at 30. Blood also helped organize an outdoor worship event at the time with three other churches from the association.

Records show that over the past decade the city paid the church $4,600 in the form of hotel grants to use its space on Olympic Avenue in downtown Arlington.

In a small city looking to revitalize its local economy, the downtown church made itself a valuable resource, offering volunteers at city events. Then Arlington Pride began using downtown space for annual events, too. Blood and others in the ministerial association had a problem with that.

Prior to the first Arlington Pride, he emailed a newsletter to church members railing against the event and warning them to stay away from Legion Park. At the end, he attached the Pride event’s itinerary.

“There will be people coming from all over the state to celebrate sin and presentations that glorify behavior that God condemns,” Blood wrote to his congregation.

Ahead of the second event, Blood and others went a step further.

On March 7, 2023, Calvary Pastor Jacobson met with Tolbert and Ellis, according to public records. It is unclear exactly what they discussed or who else attended. Jacobson declined an interview. A month later, Blood mentioned a meeting with city officials in a sermon.

“Recently, several of the pastors had a sit-down with the mayor and said, ‘You know, we understand what you have to allow, but we also understand that there are things we believe are a threat to our children,’” Blood said. “That when someone comes in dressed in drag clothes, that’s a threat to our children. And so we had a very real conversation about those things.”

He went on during the service to say he has “a good relationship with the mayor and sent her a personal email talking about some of those things” and that he received a letter back.

A records request seeking all emails between city officials and religious leaders did not bring up any emails where Blood outlined his concerns to Tolbert between Feb. 1, 2023 and July 3, 2023. It is possible Blood emailed Tolbert — who was running for re-election at the time — on an personal account.

”We got an email back this week where she said, ‘You know, we met with the (Pride organizers) and told them there were certain things that we couldn’t have or didn’t want, and that there would be a required police force there,’” Blood claimed on April 30, 2023. “And the response was, ‘Well, we can’t afford all of that. We’re just going to have to cancel it this year.’”

Church members responded with a smattering of claps.

However, the Pride event did go forward. But it was delayed until July 22 — when it became a political flashpoint over a new state law that bans openly carrying weapons at permitted public gatherings that could attract agitators and violence.

‘To create hype and hysteria’

Lifeway has since edited the video of its April 30, 2023, service to cut any mention of the mayor. Arlington Pride contends portions of that sermon contain information it had not publicly released at the time, about security and timing of the event.

Other public records mention the meeting between church and city officials.

“Remind me to fill you in on the meeting with the ministers also,” Tolbert wrote to the city’s community engagement coordinator, following the meeting.

Ellis said in an interview he had little memory of the March 2023 meeting with Jacobson — only that it happened.

“I think I’m confusing meetings or something like that,” the city administrator said.

As for the churches, he said, they didn’t have a say in city decisions.

“I don’t see influence that comes out from the religious organizations or anything that affect decisions that are made within the city,” Ellis said. “I just don’t see it here.”

The city initially redacted nearly 500 pages of records, citing “attorney client privilege.” The Herald requested unredacted copies of these records. Arlington has since provided some. The remainder appear to be messages between the city attorney, Peiffle, and city officials, discussing how to respond to media requests surrounding Arlington Pride, as well as conversations about the event itself. Ellis told The Herald all communications with attorneys representing Arlington are redacted in records requests.

“Emails which convey requests for my legal advice/review and which convey my legal advice are privileged and should be redacted under the PRA,” Peiffle wrote. “The City Council is the only entity which can waive the privilege.”

Others have faced redactions as well. Ryan Johnson, an Arlington Pride volunteer and a former Democratic candidate for state House, filed numerous records requests with the city, seeking information about what happened with last year’s event. He too received redacted emails and felt other requests were incomplete.

He said he is “convinced” the redactions were against the law and believes the redacted records have to do with back-and-forth over a state law.

Arlington Pride sent a letter to the city asking officials to enforce a 250-foot weapon-free zone around their event. Initially, Arlington refused to enforce the law, but relented after the state attorney general’s office stepped in.

“It was no accident that a high school educated truck driver knew the law about prohibition of open carry at a permitted event better than the mayor and the city attorney,” said Johnson, a trucker, in a text message.

The city included one unredacted memo from Peiffle in the Herald’s record request. On May 2, 2023, he wrote: “In some respects, it is my personal belief that this ‘ruckus’ is fabricated to create hype and hysteria over the event to attract more attendees and ‘get the word out’ about the event.”

Arlington Pride organizers have said that is not true.

In another permitting hurdle, officials told Pride that the organization may have to cover the cost of security and insurance, because of the potential for violence. Pride organizers saw that as backward — and the city eventually backed down on that, too.

Peiffle walked back his comments in an email this month.

“The 2023 Pride Event became a ‘hot spot’ for both sides of the political spectrum that wanted to use the City to pressure the other side,” Peiffle wrote. “It may have been unfair for me to characterize that as being the intent of the entire Arlington Pride organization.”

Peiffle served as president of an evangelical Lutheran church and school in Arlington for four years. He said his religious views don’t influence his duties as city attorney.

“The city is going to continue to do its best to follow the law that’s established under both the state and federal constitutions, Washington state law and case law authorities,” Peiffle said at a City Council meeting in July 2023.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the freedom of the people to peaceably assemble.

“This is not an issue that the city is ignoring,” Peiffle added.

‘A battle going on in Arlington’

Arlington Pride organizer Kinzie Killebrew, 27, said she first experienced homophobia at age 9 at a church in Arlington. A pastor at a youth group told her God hated gay people and they would be going to Hell, she remembered.

“Arlington has a very conservative and religious culture,” Killebrew said. “… A lot of the Christian people that I met, that had an influence in my life, were very much (feeling) that gay people were an abomination and not supposed to exist.”

Alex Phillips, a high school freshman in Arlington this year, attended the 2023 Pride event despite worries about safety. Phillips, like Killebrew, recounted issues of bullying where religion played a major part. For Phillips, it ended a sixth grade friendship.

“I got my first girlfriend, and my best friend, who I’d (known) since the first day of kindergarten, they wouldn’t talk to me anymore because I had a girlfriend,” Phillips said in an interview last year. “Her family was very religious.”

Pride’s roots can be traced to the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, when being gay meant living in constant fear of violence. Now, public events aim to let people express their identity without fear of being judged or shamed.

“I want to be able to exist in a way that I feel safe just being myself,” Killebrew said. “And so Arlington Pride gave me that opportunity to do it in the very town that took so much away from me.”

Churches exerting influence in local politics is nothing new in America, and it’s certainly not limited to Arlington.

In recent years, attacks on LGBTQ+ people have often centered on drag performances, as a purported threat to public morality.

Performing in drag and being trans are two wildly different things, even if they’re often conflated, said Kate Bitz, who works for voting rights watchdog Western States Center.

“Attacks on LGBTQ+ art forms, such as drag, definitely have a relationship to anti-trans ideology and targeting in that,” Bitz said. “First of all, many of these groups don’t know how to distinguish between a drag performance and a transgender person’s everyday life.”

And community acceptance is meaningful, while rejection can have life-or-death consequences, according to a 2023 report by The Trevor Project.

“People who felt their sexual orientation was accepted by at least one adult, and transgender and nonbinary (TGNB) young people who felt their gender identity was accepted by at least one adult, had lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year compared to those who did not feel accepted,” reads a summary of the report.

In Arlington, pastors’ sermons railed against drag performances and “confusion” over gender — turning that into public action. Jake’s House Church Pastor Keith Kippen and Blood each asked their congregations to sign petitions against laws: one meant to help LGBTQ+ youth escape abusive homes and another requiring schools to provide a comprehensive sexual education.

Kippen urged his congregation to sign petitions for the “Reject 5599” campaign, a bill protecting minors seeking gender-affirming care.

“We feel that everyone should be treated equally. Those rights are given by God,” Kippen said in an interview, when asked about his support for the Reject 5599 campaign. “When it comes to family rights? That’s super, super important to us. So we feel like the trans, gay community can be validated and loved, but not at the expense of parents losing their rights.”

Jacobson posted on his personal Facebook page about the campaign as well, asking his followers to call or email the state’s governor with their concerns. Moms For Liberty, Gays Against Groomers, Conservative Ladies of Washington and the Washington Three Percenters also rallied opposition to Senate Bill 5599.

Blood, meanwhile, backed a push to overturn Referendum 90 dealing with Washington’s sexual education curriculum.

Kippen believes “demons” are at work in the lives of people who are not heterosexual. Other local evangelical leaders feel similarly.

“There is a battle going on in Arlington, of which many of you are already aware, it’s between those who wish to bring an ungodly, sexualized exposure and influence into the lives of our children, as opposed by those who are wishing to appropriately guard our children’s minds,” said Atonement Free Lutheran Pastor Rick Long on June 25, 2023.

In a sermon, Kippen said church leaders were going to turn June 2023 into “Christian Humility Month,” instead of Pride month.

“The reality is they just say we don’t tolerate them. Right? So we’re going to have, quote, ‘tolerance’ as a church, right? Because we want to tolerate, right, what’s going around us? The reality is this spirit is not about toleration,” Kippen said. “This spirit is about domination; this spirit is aggressive. This spirit is not going to stop. The perversion just keeps getting worse and worse and worse.”

He added: “Sexual sin is one of the most common tools of Satan that opens the door to demons.”

Despite that sermon, Kippen told The Herald he loves the gay community.

“We had a family this past week where, who I love dearly, their son, you know, came to church in a dress. He’s in his late 20s, he came to church in a dress, wearing high heels,” Kippen said this month. “I can’t speak for other churches, maybe in other churches, maybe that same family would feel really uncomfortable. I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for them. For us, we absolutely love the gay community.”

Christ the King Pastor Rick Schranck told his congregation he walked to Legion Park as organizers set up last year’s Pride event. He said he recited Psalm 1, a book in the Bible that begins: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”

He then told his congregation: “Discrimination has actually got a positive and neutral idea to it too.”

‘To help elevate pressure’

After Arlington Pride announced it was moving the date of its 2023 event, TV stations, radio, newspapers and online media all ran stories on the ensuing uproar.

Supporters and opponents flocked to City Council meetings to say their piece. Blood quickly sent an email to Tolbert.

“I want you to know that we are praying,” Blood wrote on May 4, 2023. “I also wanted to let you know we support you.”

He continued: “Is there anything that we can do to help elevate pressure or give greater support?”

Their back-and-forth eventually led to a one-hour meeting on June 5, 2023, at Silver Scoop. Two days later, she also emailed asking to speak with Blood by phone. It’s unclear what they spoke about on the call.

Tolbert told The Herald via email last year they discussed several topics over ice cream.

“He wanted to let me know he missed the meeting with the (Arlington Ministerial Association) because he was out of town,” she said in an email. “We discussed upcoming events and how he planned to participate in the July 4th event, and the Street Fair. He was curious if his youth could be valuable at the SkyFest event in August as volunteers.”

On July 23, 2023, church leadership mentioned the Arlington Fly-In SkyFest, an aviation event Tolbert spearheaded, in announcements before the service.

“The City of Arlington is paying us to have volunteers. And that monetary exchange right there is going to go toward the youth group,” said Virginia Muniz, a Lifeway church leader said in the morning announcements. “It’s going to go toward our missionaries.”

Tolbert, who lost a re-election bid to Don Vanney in 2023, is the executive director of Arlington Fly-In, according to its most recent IRS filings. She used the Fly-In’s account on Alignable, a business website, to vouch for Lifeway. Asked about Blood, she said he’s “been a great volunteer for the community.”

A week before meeting with the mayor at Silver Scoop, Blood met with Police Chief Jonathan Ventura. Emails show Blood set up the meeting via email, first asking how many police officers the department had. He wrote that he wanted to get them gift cards, according to public records. Ventura responded with the number of full-time city officers.

In an interview this month, Ventura said their meeting dealt with fencing the city put up between the church and the park where Pride is held. Blood emailed Ventura again on May 31, 2023, thanking him for the time. Blood invited him to meet with the Arlington Ministerial Association three weeks later, but Ventura said he did not take the pastor up on that.

While Blood played a central role in the local evangelical battle against the Pride event, he was not the only religious official to play a part.

Jacobson also emailed city officials several times in the months leading up to Pride.

In one email to Ellis, he asked for a “legal perspective” as to whether a drag performer dancing in a video referenced in an article violated any laws. And in a signed letter, five Calvary members told the former mayor she had failed to protect the kids of her constituents.

“We have a fundamental disagreement with any groups that want to hold public events that are based on celebrating sexuality when children are present,” they wrote.

Drag story time, where performers read aloud to kids, was at the heart of complaints from Blood’s congregants, who sent comments to the city, as well. Danny and Emma Kirk, listed as staff members on Lifeway’s website, sent a letter to Tolbert and Ventura. The couple works with Lifeway’s middle and high school youth group, called “Elevate.”

In the letter, the couple argued allowing children to see people dressed in drag will make them more susceptible to “predators.”

“It erodes any trepidation the child may have when encountering predators in the community,” they wrote.

A recent Associated Press article cited therapists and experts, who noted “drag cannot ‘turn’ a child gay or transgender, although its playful use of gender may be reassuring to kids who are already questioning their identity.”

‘The heart of American culture’

Christianity is not a monolith. Many denominations make supporting LGBTQ+ people part of their mission.

Many Christian churches perform same-sex marriages and have openly gay clergy. Churches like Lifeway and others in the Arlington Ministerial Association are a “small minority,” said James Wellman, a University of Washington professor who chairs the school’s Comparative Religion program.

In terms of the Leviticus passages about putting gay people to death, “I think only the most hardcore evangelical churches will put that up as the bottom line on sexuality,” Wellman said. “I don’t see that as a frequent scriptural citing.”

A 2023 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found 76% of Americans support laws to strengthen LGBTQ+ protections. In white evangelical Protestant churches, 56% were in favor.

In places like Arlington, Wellman sees small-scale battles in a broader cultural conflict.

Caera Gramore, the acting president of Arlington Pride, speaks during an Arlington City Council meeting on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Caera Gramore, the acting president of Arlington Pride, speaks during an Arlington City Council meeting on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“Kind of in reaction to the fact that progressive ethics and morality is moving into the public life of the culture, there’s been a reaction from parts of the Christian church to say, ‘Hey, no, this is who we are,’” Wellman said.

Arlington church leaders touch on this idea in several sermons.

“God in His wisdom and goodness has made us either male or female, according to his wise plan for our lives, and has us to live out that biological gender that he is assigned to us,” Long, the pastor at Arlington Free Lutheran, said in July 2023. “We’ll want to help those that are struggling, help them to know God’s love for them, but also to accept God’s design for them, again, rooted in the truth.”

Understanding the evangelical definition of “love” is important to understanding these churches, said André Gagné, a theologian and professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

“A lot of the secular world understands the way that these Christians are operating. And they kind of label this as hate,” he said. “But for them it’s not hate, they don’t hate. Like, there’s some that will, but in general, they won’t say ‘I hate you.’”

As some Protestant churches have veered toward more progressive policies, some have started to see declining attendance.

“In reaction to that, the evangelical church has gone kind of in the opposite direction, and become more conservative and more political, and so you’ve kind of got religious cultures running into each other,” Wellman said. “And so there’s this culture conflict that really is nasty.”

Local pastors feel evangelicals have lost something or become oppressed. Many in conservative evangelical circles feel their identity has been lost, Wellman said.

“I think with the rise of Trump and the rise in Christian nationalism in the United States … the movement says we must reinsert true Christianity, their idea of Christianity back into the heart of American culture,” Wellman said. “And once you get into the language of nationalism and religious nationalism, as Donald Trump does with his cohort, then you’re getting into forms of coercion.”

In Arlington, the connection is direct. Kippen opened a Trump rally in downtown Everett in 2016.

“I believe God put it in Donald Trump’s heart to make this nation great again. It wasn’t Donald’s idea, it was God’s idea,” Kippen said in a sermon in July 2023.

Kippen also told the Herald he is a Christian nationalist, a theology that holds the United States should be a wholly Christian nation.

“I think being a Christian nationalist should not be labeled as a negative thing,” Kippen said. “I feel like it should be a positive thing. I’m not a globalist. I’m not a communist.”

Arlington Lifeway has hosted meetings of Tactical Civics, a Christian-based organization that claims 500 chapters across the country. The group believes the federal government to be illegal.

Cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an antigovernment “Patriot” group, Tactical Civics asserts the 2020 election was a fraud and the “Deep State” is “destroying our economy and keeping Americans in concentration camps with no communication between us. This republic of sovereign States, founded in the Name of Jesus Christ and blessed for centuries, is now under Communist occupation by D.C., Beijing, and many state palaces.”

Stephen Piggott, an expert on right-wing extremism formerly with Western States Center, said the organization is small, but is seeking a foothold in the Pacific Northwest after building a base in other states.

Whether the group gets that foothold remains to be seen. Arlington Pride’s event this month went smoothly. And Ellis believes things are getting better in Arlington, moving toward more acceptance.

“I see growing tolerance for other people’s lifestyles in this area,” Ellis said. “That’s not to say that there’s not conflict still out there.”

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