Newspaper Knuckles Under to Raving Religious Zealot

More of the same cruddy headlines from the Middle East, right? Nope -- try Homestead.

When she read the Miami Herald's June 27 Tropic magazine, the issue with anti-gay crusader Ralf Stores pictured on the cover, Carol Parker knew she had the makings of a good column. As a regular contributor since 1991 to the South Dade News Leader, a twice-weekly newspaper based in Homestead, Parker was always on the lookout for controversial people or events. "What I try to do each week is to touch people's hearts and make them think," Parker says.

In Stores she figured she'd found a winner. Here, after all, was a Homestead furniture salesman who was gaining quite a bit of attention for himself and his cause. As the Dade County coordinator for the American Family Association, Stores will be responsible during the next twelve months for gaining the signatures of 100,000 registered Dade voters to assist the statewide drive to place a proposal on the 1994 ballot that would prohibit the state, or any cities or counties, from passing laws that would defend the civil rights of homosexuals. It would also repeal any laws already on the books designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in areas such as housing and employment.

Parker was specifically troubled by one thing Stores had told Tropic staff writer Mike Wilson. He was afraid his battle against homosexuals might get bloody, Stores had said, and he feared for the safety of his children. But, he quickly added, he would not bend to such possible threats. "I would rather have my children be burned in a fire knowing that their father stood up for Christ," Stores was quoted as saying, "than have them live a long life knowing their father denied the faith." The quotation was followed by Wilson's description of Stores as a "friendly, agreeable fellow, a guy next door."

Having pondered Stores's assertion, Parker says, her column flowed easily. "The mere thought of his being the guy next door greatly alarms me," she wrote in her July 13 piece for the News Leader. "I'd much rather live in a community of loving gay couples than next door to a guy who would watch his children burn to death for the sake of his convictions. Shades of Waco! Is there anything he wouldn't do to get what he wants? Why would anyone want to sign their name to a petition in the hands of such a dangerous person? Even if they did agree with it."

Parker noted that Stores and the American Family Association were planning to get all 430,000 signatures for their petition through churches and religious groups by August of next year. "I wonder how many Christians will sign it?" she wrote. "I wonder how many will be persuaded by scripture-spouting zealots who believe they know God's plan for everyone's lives (something that should be between each individual and God)." Christianity, she added, should be about love, not intolerance. She cited biblical verses to support this view.

"Out of respect for his freedom of speech and religion, I would be the last one to prohibit this friendly fellow from speaking his mind," Parker summed up. "But we need to be cautious of anyone who wields his freedoms as weapons to destroy the freedom of others. Even if he is using legitimate measures. Freedom is not free. It has been -- and always will be -- bought with the blood of those who cherish it. We must guard it zealously. If we stand aside and watch as groups of people begin to lose this precious freedom -- or worse yet, cause them to lose it -- surely it's only a matter of time before we lose our own."

Parker, who lives in Key Largo, was pleased with the column. After receiving it in the mail, the newspaper's editors didn't call with any questions or concerns. They made only a few slight changes. She didn't give it another thought until two weeks later. On July 29, she says, she received a frantic phone call from the News Leader's managing editor, Yolanda Ulrich. According to Parker, Ulrich told her that Ralf Stores was furious. "She told me he said he was going to sue over what I said in my column," Parker recalls. "She was so livid and so angry. She was speaking to me like I was some kind of naughty schoolgirl. She called me 'Missy.'"

Her first reaction to the legal threat, Parker says, was to laugh. But what followed was anything but humorous.

Stores, it seemed, had angrily pointed out that the proposed amendment was not anti-gay and would not legalize discrimination against homosexuals. The 53-year-old columnist says she told Ulrich that the complaints were ridiculous, that Stores was simply trying to bully a small newspaper. She offered to call Stores herself, Parker adds, and take full responsibility for what she had written, but Ulrich told her Stores only wanted to deal with the newspaper's attorneys.

The next issue of the South Dade News Leader contained no column by Carol Parker. Instead, Ulrich published a column of her own, headlined: "Fallout from 'lazy' style of journalism." In the piece, Ulrich did not mention Parker by name, but took her to task for not interviewing Stores before criticizing him, for not better acquainting herself with the amendment, and for not clearly stating in her column that she was only expressing her own opinions. It was wrong for Parker to assert that the proposed amendment would legalize discrimination against homosexuals, Ulrich wrote: "The columnist wrote that as fact. Stores took issue with the paragraph, stating nowhere in the amendment is the word homosexual mentioned. And he's quite correct."

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