Role reversal

Sacramento’s Slavic Christians fled persecution back home, but some are befuddled by their new country’s tolerance of gays

Over the last few months, the loudest voice against gay rights in Sacramento has been that of Sacramento’s Slavic Christian community. Outside of area high schools and on the steps of the Capitol, hundreds of Slavic families, many recent immigrants, have been gathering to protest what is considered a shameful secret in their home countries.

The irony is that they fled those countries after being persecuted for their own religious beliefs.

Eighteen-year-old Nadia Chorney is a Ukrainian native and evangelical Christian. She’s already a veteran activist, fighting against “promoting homosexuality in our schools.”

As a youth leader in her Marysville church, she participated in a number of political actions this spring. She stood in front of the Capitol to protest the passage of Senate Bill 1437, the bill that would have required California textbooks to acknowledge the historical contributions of gay people.

But most of her political activity has been centered around protesting the “Day of Silence” instituted by the Sacramento City Unified School District Board to combat harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in public schools.

Chorney, who believes that “homosexuality is a sin,” was among the many area high-school students who wore anti-gay T-shirts to school on April 26, the Day of Silence. According to Chorney, school administrators demanded that she and other students turn their “homosexuality is a sin, Jesus will set you free” T-shirts inside out. School officials also confiscated anti-gay leaflets from Chorney and other students.

Frustrated by what she felt was an infringement of her First Amendment rights, Chorney gathered with other students and parents for three days in front of Mira Loma High School to protest.

She is just one of the many Slavic immigrants who moved to the United States “looking for a Christian country.” The way she describes her life in Ukraine sounds more like a novel than the résumé of a typical California high-school senior.

“I came to the United States for religious freedom,” Chorney explained. “My grandma died in jail. My father had been persecuted for our religion.”

In fact, her grandmother died in a Ukrainian prison after spending 20 years there for practicing Christianity, Chorney said. She also said that she suffers from a heart condition common among children born after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.

She and her family moved to the United States two-and-a-half years ago to escape further religious persecution. Her father is a Baptist minister who often was harassed even in post-communist Ukraine, she explained.

Kevin Snider, an attorney who represented Chorney in negotiations with the school board over the Day of Silence debacle, said her story is a common one. “It is interesting to talk to the parents and grandparents of these kids. They came to this country because of the representation in our Constitution. They are passionate about constitutional freedom,” he said.

Snider is chief legal counsel for the Pacific Justice Institute, whose Web site boasts the praise it has received from such conservative icons as Laura Schlessinger and Bill O’Reilly. Snider says that “gay issues have become ground zero” within the Sacramento Slavic community because homosexuality was perceived as shameful in their native countries, and because “there is an intolerance of dissenting views on this issue, they are reacting to this.”

Local gay-rights activist Jade Baranski began noting the increased Slavic presence at anti-gay actions in recent months. She was at the rally to encourage the governor to veto S.B. 1437 and recalls encountering “at least 1,000” opponents of the bill. She was startled by the passion evident among the Slavic protesters. “Everyone was very angry,” Baranski said, and “obviously very closed-minded.” Baranski questions how it is that people seeking religious tolerance are motivated to come out and oppose another group obtaining civil rights. “They came from a country where they were persecuted; there is an inherent hypocrisy” in their opposition to gay rights, she said. She is worried that the large number of Slavic community members willing to show up in opposition to gay rights will overshadow the voice of the people who favor “equal human rights.”

But Chorney insists that she is not trying to take away any rights, just exercising hers. “They have a right to choose. Some people say they are born that way. That is not true. God never makes any mistakes,” she said.

She believes it is her Christian duty to speak publicly about her beliefs. “Everybody has a right to express what they believe in. I believe homosexuality is a sin, [and] my mission as a Christian is to tell people that.”

Richard Otterstad, a pastor at an El Dorado church that has a long history of actively demonstrating against gay rights, believes that the Slavic community has mobilized around this issue because “it embodies the culture war; you touch it, and passions fly.” Otterstad’s Church of the Divide has been providing pamphlets opposing homosexuals and the Day of Silence for Slavic students to distribute at political actions. He says that he and his church are just trying “to make ourselves available” to the newly politically active Slavic community and that “they are pretty motivated on their own.”

But Otterstad also has teamed up with two ministers from local Slavic churches, Ivan Megediuk and Nikolay Bugriyev, to sponsor a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a legal union only between a man and a woman and bars domestic partnerships.

Otterstad said that the signature-gathering for the initiative was dropped when it became clear that there would be no move in the California Legislature this year to allow for gay marriage. Opponents of the initiative say it was dropped for lack of interest among voters.

It is unlikely in any case that Chorney and her compatriots will be silent. She has been reading the Bible for continued inspiration and is sure that she is “just promoting what God says.” She will be starting at a private university in a couple of weeks—a whole new stage for her brand of political activism—and is sure that this year’s battles are “probably just the beginning.”