On July 21, hundreds of people crowded into the downtown First Presbyterian Church for Exodus International's annual conference.
Vicki Vargo was there too. The Orlando city commissioner best known for her sometimes juvenile opposition to Chapter 57 -- the city's equal protection ordinance -- stood up and delivered a proclamation praising Exodus for, among other things, "sharing the love of Jesus" and "providing ministry for hurting people in our community." Vargo declared July 21 "Exodus International Day" in Orlando.
The "hurting" people she referred to are gay. Exodus is devoted to helping them get straight, with a little help from the Big Guy. The group claims that homosexuality isn't genetic or natural, and says that with help homos can become heteros. It's a controversial idea.
Vargo's endorsement of Exodus slipped under the media's radar, aside from a brief mention in a cover story Orlando Weekly ran on the group. That was enough to piss off Royce Mathew, a year-ago transplant to Central Florida who has already threatened to sue the city over the sectarian invocations former Mayor Glenda Hood allowed before council meetings.
"If the city can give a proclamation to a hate group upholding the legacy of the Nazis, I want a proclamation as well," says Mathew.
So O-Town's newest hellraiser formed his own "group," Exodu Sin Ternational, and launched a web site (http://hometown.aol.com/georgequeen/page3.html). Now he's demanding the same thing Exodus got: a proclamation from the city.
"We are promoting and upholding a key righteous Nazi goal, which is to eliminate the homosexuals from the world," he says, tongue firmly planted in cheek. And he wants Vargo to give him the exact same proclamation she gave Exodus. If he doesn't get it by the Sept. 15 city council meeting, he says he'll sue.
This is how he wants the proclamation to read: "Exodu Sin Ternational is working in parallel with organizations like Exodus International and with the righteous goal of the Nazi party to eliminate homosexuality from Florida and the rest of the world. Exodu SIn (sic) Ternational is a Christian-based group just like Exodus International."
Vargo gave her approval to Exodus without letting the rest of the council know what she was up to. (To do so might have stirred up a hornet's nest.) It was an unusual step, but certainly legal. Since taking office in 2000, Vargo has issued two proclamations: one to Exodus, the other to an elementary school marking its 75th anniversary.
According to assistant city attorney Amy Iennaco and long-time former city clerk Grace Chewning, the city has never codified the process. Traditionally, the mayor has issued the distinction to people he or she felt deserved it. If commissioners wanted to participate, they would sign the proclamation. Chewning remembers a time, about a dozen years ago, when commissioners began distributing proclamations on their own, which forced former chief of staff Randall James to send a message: All proclamations must be generated from the mayor's office.
Because the rules are so rooted in tradition, it's uncertain if Mathew's lawsuit would have any merit. At the very least, Mathew says he wants the city to clarify its own proclamation process.
"What is the criteria with which you issue a proclamation?" he asks. "That is what this is all about. Isn't it about time we started questioning this?"
Yes it is, says commissioner Patty Sheehan, who on July 23 wrote the mayor an e-mail expressing disgust at Vargo's proclamation. "As an openly gay public official, I am personally and professionally offended by this action," Sheehan wrote. "Proclamations have historically been utilized to celebrate special occasions and milestones of constituency groups, neighborhoods and businesses. I can never recall a proclamation that was utilized to promote bigotry against a group of people based upon religious beliefs."
Sheehan wants all proclamations to be approved by the mayor, and a prohibition on "any language that promotes intolerance."
Vargo thinks the whole thing is much ado about nothing. "Proclamations are a formality," she says. "However, I was not surprised when it triggered some controversy."
Exodus sought the proclamation, Vargo says -- several times in fact. After considering it "very carefully," Vargo decided to grant it for three reasons: Its director, Alan Chambers, lives in her district; Exodus is anchored at a church in her district, Calvary Assembly (which interestingly enough bears a Winter Park address but was recently annexed into the city); and the conference was happening at a high-profile downtown church.
Besides, Vargo doesn't see Exodus as a "Nazi" group. "That's not the rhetoric I've heard from them," she says. "It's really an organization for the most part that is managed by people who were gay and are no longer gay. It's not some right-wing, heterosexual, Christian or some other group who were gay-bashers. `They have` at least some knowledge of the feelings of the gay community."
That said, she demurs on the nature/nurture issue at the root of the controversy. Says Vargo: "Who knows? I don't know. I'm not going to judge. What if I gave a proclamation to `Mothers Against Drunk Driving`? Does that mean I think all drinking is bad? I think people are making too much of it, really."
She points out that Sheehan issues a proclamation every June celebrating a gay-pride parade, and says Mayor Buddy Dyer and Commissioners Ernest Page and Daisy Lynum issue many more proclamations than she does.
As for Mathew's demand for his own proclamation, don't bet on it. "I don't know him," she says.
Which should make the Sept. 15 meeting fun. "I want `Vargo` to rescind that proclamation," says Mathew. "`On the other hand` if they can provide hate proclamations, I want one. If they say you can't have one, I want to know, by what criteria. When are city commissioners going to be held accountable for using the city commission as their own pulpit?"