ATLAH World Missionary Church in New York City
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Does God hate fags?

According to Pastor James D. Manning, the answer, apparently, is  “yes,” because the marque outside Manning’s ATLAH World Missionary Church in Harlem bore these words: “Jesus would stone homos. Stoning is still the law.”

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It’s the message that a passerby could read outside the otherwise typical-looking entrance to his church a few weeks ago—and, it would seem, a reference to Old Testament Scripture as justification for what can only be seen as an incitement to violence against gays and lesbians.

But it looks like Manning may have missed a few too many Sunday-school lessons.

The pastor, who has expanded the church into both a theological seminary and an online ministerial program called The Manning Report, also posted signs that read, “Harlem is a homo-free zone” and “Obama has released the homo demons on the black man. Look out black woman. A white homo may take your man.” His idea, I suppose, of loving thy neighbor.

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But the story, as odd and disturbing as it already is, became even more complicated last week when an as-yet-unidentified individual decided to take action by removing the letters on the church sign and spray-painting over it with the presumably sarcastic observation “God is gay.”

Truth then became stranger than fiction, because after Manning called the police to report it, the NYPD chose to investigate the act of vandalism as a “hate crime.” Yes, a hate crime—a term specifically derived from the need to distinguish violent acts against LGBT people and racial minorities, the very kind of violence suggested by Manning’s sign itself.

I guess the New York City Police Department has nothing better to do now that the unwarranted stop and frisk of African-American and Latino men is illegal.

Though the pastor’s messages are protected under the First Amendment, it’s ironic that he’s being painted as the victim here.

“His signs were hateful,” Carmen Neely, president of Harlem Pride, said. “I think he should be investigated for hate speech.”

For his part, Manning welcomed the news that the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force was investigating his case. “That’s exactly what it is. It was motivated by pure and simple hate,” he told New York's Daily News, adding, “Gay people are just outright bullies,” and “I expected them to act in a very violent way.”

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Which raises the obvious question: Which is more violent: a sign that reads “God is gay” or one that says, “Jesus would stone homos”?

The issue isn’t new: The recently deceased Fred Phelps, pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, was well-known for his counterintuitive “God hates fags” messaging displayed during countless military funerals—often of young veterans from America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The difference here is that Manning, by virtue of the church he leads and the community in which it is based, is aligned with an African-American church tradition historically steeped in support of civil rights and equality. His prominent location alone, at the intersection of Harlem’s 123rd Street and Lenox Avenue, places the debate about homophobia in the church squarely at the heart of the black community.

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And in contrast to Manning, the Rev. Delman Coates believes that “we need more black clergy with enough prophetic courage to speak out against this ignorance” instead of promoting it.

Coates, who leads Mount Ennon Baptist Church, a mega-church in Clinton, Md., with more than 8,000 congregants, has been an outspoken critic of anti-gay religious rhetoric. He was an ambassador of President Obama’s 2012 campaign and was recently nominated to run for lieutenant governor of Maryland.

“I find these signs completely un-American and un-Christian,” Coates told me. “It’s un-American because we live in a society in which we enjoy both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. And it is un-Christian because it is antithetical to the spirit of Christ—who taught us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And who said, ‘He who is without sin must cast the first stone.’

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“Consensual love between same-sex couples was never condemned in the Bible,” Coates continued. “When people refer to the stories of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah, they need to understand that sexual rape and violence is what was condemned there, not love. I consider myself an evangelical and a conservative minister, but these guys are applying ideological perspectives to the religious texts that simply are not there. The black church in America has historically been a place where the ideals of freedom, justice and inclusion were promoted both socially and politically. That’s our rich history. I am disturbed by people who use this as a platform to demean the humanity of others.”

In answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” Coates replied, “I think Jesus would accuse a lot of these people of identity fraud. In fact, identity fraud is a major problem in pulpits across America. And Jesus wants his identity back.”

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.