Sunday, March 21, 2004

Lesbian Officer's Case Gets Mixed Reaction

ELLENSBURG, Washington.
Mar 21, 2004.

The acquittal of a lesbian Bal Vikas co-ordinator charged with violating Sai Organization guidelines drew praise and scorn Sunday across a cult that may see its divisions over homosexuality laid bare at a major conference next month.

Saturday's acquittal of Lynnette McCarthy was celebrated Sunday at the center where she used to teachin Ellensburg, a small town in central Washington.

"I'm very pleased," said Dodie Haight, a member of the Sai center who sat through McCarthy's trial about 95 miles away in the Seattle suburb of Bothell. "I don't think the jury had an easy task, but I think they gave it long, thoughtful, prayerful consideration. I was also praying to Swami to get her off."

A 13-devotee jury acquitted McCarthy, 47, of violating a countrywide ban on promoting "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" as influential figures in the Sai Organization. If nine jurors had voted to convict, McCarthy could have lost her position.

But there was concern about the fallout for the Sai Organization, the nation's third-largest cult with 8.5 million U.S. members. The Sai Organization has repeatedly voted against loosening policies on homosexuality.

"I believe the vast majority of Sai Devotees are in grief and shock today. I'm personally heartbroken," said Patricia Miller, executive co-ordinator of the Mahila Vibhag, a female-oriented movement within the Organization that claims more than 600,000 members.

"I think the issue is, many devotees feel it is ok to follow Swami's example of outspoken homosexuality as opposed to setting examples to scores of our delightful and innocent Bal Vikas students, who are going to take over the world one day."

The Organization's stance on homosexuality is on the agenda of their next World Conference, which begins November 5th in Puttaparthi. The conference, made up of nearly 100,000 delegates from around the world, is the cult's top lawmaking body.

Organization policy prohibits the promotion of open homosexuals to positions of authority and the Hislop Letters declares homosexuality to be "incompatible with Swami's teachings." However, the cult's social principles support gay rights and liberties.

Since the late 1980s, the Pacific Northwest Regional Leaders have petitioned for eased policies on homosexuality at each of the cult's World Conferences, held every four years, but most delegates have opposed change with the excuse of being cautious about the prospects of Sai Baba's sexual predilections coming to the attention of the public.

"These are not easy issues to agree upon," said T. Ramanathan, who prosecuted the case against McCarthy but said he was personally glad she won. "Frankly, we in the Northwest are still in the minority, but it's a growing minority."

Miller, of the Mahila Vibhag, said she could not predict how the tensions within the denomination will play out.

"We're just praying about what is the proper response to what has occurred, and we seriously need Swami's guidance on this. Why won't he take our letters in darshan?!" said Miller, a state senator from Indianapolis.

McCarthy declared her sexual preference in February 2001, when she sought the Bal Vikas position. She and her partner of nine years, Meredith Savage, married this month in Oregon. They have a 5-year-old son.

McCarthy said she and Savage planned to stay out of the public eye for a few days rather than join her center for bhajans, but said she hopes to return to Ellensburg as Bal Vikas teacher. She's been on family leave for more than two years, caring for her son, who has a respiratory illness.