Interfaith Council rejects claim it refused Church membership

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By Brian Sweeney
The Interfaith Council has rejected charges that it refused admission to the Holy Innocents Catholic Church because the congregation supports same-sex marriage.

The controversy exploded on Social Media this week after the Interfaith Council did not take a vote on whether to allow the Halcottsville-based church to join the council.
Interfaith Council President Adele Siegel said there was no problem with the Holy Innocents Church joining the organization.

“It is absolutely not true. They were not rejected. It was tabled because we had a long meeting,” Mrs. Siegel told the News.

No rejection
“We are probably going to meet a week from Monday and it’s a nonissue. Whatever appeared (online) was misinformation. There was absolutely no rejection. We really want all the groups on board,” she added.

Mrs. Siegel said the council is in the process of filing an application to become a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organization and its meeting last week was dedicated almost exclusively to that topic.
“We didn’t have a sense of urgency (about the application). We had done a lot of business, but there was not any question of rejecting them,” the president explained.

The Rev. Richard Dykstra, treasurer/secretary for the Interfaith Council, said the board did discuss several issues when contemplating membership for the Holy Innocents Church.

“The intent was not to say no, but a couple of board members realized they had to talk to their respective church boards (before voting on membership).”

Topic was brought up
He acknowledged that the topic of gay marriage was discussed at the session.
“Same-sex marriage is one of the issues that all of our denominations are having to struggle with. It shouldn’t play a part, but it does,” the Rev. Dykstra explained.

“I anticipate that it’s been resolved. There was just the hesitancy (on the part of several board members),” he added.

The Rev. Dykstra said there is no formal application process for joining the council, but that groups just make it known that they would like to participate.
Bishop Frank Betancourt, co-pastor at the Holy Innocents Church, said he has long wanted the church to become part of the council.

“Basically, we have been in this community for 30 some years and our church has been here for 12 years. We’ve always been involved in interfaith councils (in other communities where the church was located). This has been the first time that we haven’t been invited,” he stated.

No action taken
Bishop Betancourt said that he has periodically inquired about membership, but no action was ever taken. During the commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the flood in August, he said several parishioners asked why Holy Innocents was not part of the Interfaith Council service.
“I said we’ve never been invited. I became very upset and they (parishioners) were incensed,” he recalled.

He said that’s when Holy Innocents officials again began pursuing membership. The bishop said he’s certain his church’s support of same-sex marriage has been a roadblock to membership.
“Part of the issue is that we perform weddings for same-gender persons. We welcome everyone. The president of the United States doesn’t seem to have a problem with it and neither does New York State,” he commented.

“We’re not pushing an agenda here – if a church doesn’t want to perform these ceremonies, then don’t do them,” he added.

Bishop Betancourt noted, “We’re not looking for a battle. We believe all faiths are valid and that all faiths should be respected. Some people have found a home with us.

“If people don’t want to worship with us, that’s fine. But, the community comes first and helping people is our priority — that’s more important than going to church. We want to be able to work along with the interfaith community,” he continued.

The bishop said attendance at Holy Innocents ranges from 25-50 parishioners each week. He was shocked by the amount of support that was voiced online.
“Apparently we have more people who understand us. I’m a little shocked. It’s amazing. I can’t believe in one day, the kind of support that has come from every walk of life,” Bishop Betancourt commented.

He is hopeful that Holy Innocents will be approved for Interfaith Council membership.
“We are very anxious to help support it,” he stated.

Mrs. Siegel said she was dismayed when she learned about the entire controversy.

“The Interfaith Council has done a lot of good things and it’s really not reasonable that it gets besmirched like this,” she stated. “It was much ado about nothing.”
She explained that the Interfaith Council for many years oversaw a small food pantry in Margaretville and assisted with fund-raisers such as the CROP Walk. After widespread flooding in August 2011, the Interfaith Council took on a much larger community service role. This focus was further enhanced earlier this year when the expanded and renamed Community Pantry was opened in Margaretville.

Mrs. Siegel said the organization is applying for 501 (c) (3) status because it now serves far more residents than in the past and is applying for additional funding support.

The Interfaith Council is comprised of four Methodist churches, one Presbyterian Church, the Gould Memorial Reformed Church, the Catskill Mountain Christian Center, the Sacred Heart Catholic Parish and the Congregation Bnai Israel. The organization was established approximately 40 years ago as the Interchurch Council and the name was changed when Congregation Bnai Israel joined the organization.