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Service canceled in dispute over minister's letter

For 24 years, several Christian churches in Oakfield have held a joint, ecumenical worship service as part of the Genesee County village's traditional "Labor Daze" celebration.

But this year, a Methodist minister withdrew from the service after two fellow pastors objected to a letter to the editor he wrote expressing support for gay marriage.

And, soon after, the organizers canceled the service out of concern that holding it while excluding the Rev. Larry Eastlack could attract protests and unwanted publicity.

"There were no winners here. Everybody lost -- not only the churches, but the community," said Eastlack, pastor of Oakfield United Methodist Church for the past two years.

The decision not to hold the community worship service saddened many residents and stirred up controversy over an event known mainly for its parade and battle of the bands.

Eastlack knew that his letter to The Buffalo News and the Batavia Daily News, published in May, would generate a response. Reacting to the flap over Miss California USA Carrie Prejean's remarks opposing gay marriage at the Miss USA pageant, Eastlack said people can be true to their religious convictions and take a political stance supporting gay marriage.

The response he heard from members of his congregation and village residents, Eastlack said, "varied from far left to far right to dead center."

The issue died down, Eastlack said, until two weeks ago, when the Rev. Mark Perkins, pastor of Oakfield Alabama Baptist Church, and the Rev. Bill Smith, pastor of Oakfield Community Bible Church, asked to meet.

Each Labor Day weekend, the Christian churches in Oakfield cancel their Sunday services and instead hold an outdoor community service highlighted by a visiting speaker.

At their meeting at the United Methodist Church, Smith and Perkins told Eastlack their congregations objected so much to his stance on gay marriage that if he took part in the community service, their churches would not.

Perkins said the pastors did not want to leave the impression, by allowing Eastlack to participate, that they agreed with the position he took in the letter.

"It was an ultimatum, and that bothered me," said Eastlack, adding he pulled out because he did not want to hurt the service.

However, the Oakfield Betterment Committee, which puts on "Labor Daze," worried that Eastlack's withdrawal would focus unwanted attention on the event.

The committee then discussed the matter with Oakfield Mayor Richard D. Pastecki, who told organizers that, because of the service's religious content, they would have to move it from the public space in Triangle Park to a private space, Eastlack said.

At that point, the betterment committee decided to cancel Sunday's service, Eastlack said.

Both Eastlack and Perkins said they are disappointed with the outcome. While Eastlack said he believes that the churches can find common ground in time to bring back the service next year, Perkins isn't so sure. "We believe we took a biblical stand, and we are not going to compromise our biblical stand," Perkins said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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