BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — When she was younger, Jenn LaTorre was shunned from her Orthodox Presbyterian church because of her sexual orientation.

Now -- in just two months -- she will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of her holy union to her partner, Diana, in a church that she says has welcomed the couple for exactly who they are.

LaTorre's story is one that in many ways mirrors the progression of LGBT acceptance, particularly in religious environments. And, particularly in the Lehigh Valley, where more and more places are opening their arms for the LGBT community to worship.

One such church -- the home of Jenn and Diana -- is the Metropolitan Community Church of the Lehigh Valley. The Bethlehem-based church was founded in California in 1968 with the explicit purpose of serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

'Safe place'

MCCLV came to the Lehigh Valley in 1984 in Allentown, and then relocated to Greenview Drive in Bethlehem -- a space it shares with two other churches. Drawn to its welcoming and inclusive environment, the Rev. Elizabeth Goudy has served as a pastor there since 1999 -- the first church she has headed and the place where she remains to this day.

"I do believe that a place like this can serve as a place where someone experiences some redemption. ... Maybe they had a negative experience... and they come to MCCLV and they see all of these LGBT people being who they are, owning who they are and acknowledging that God loves them just as they are," Goudy said. "Sometimes all someone needs is that affirmation."

For many, this is the first church that parishioners say they have truly been able to be themselves. Member Wendy Bitterman said it can be difficult to belong to a church that -- although it may claim to be welcoming -- still makes LGBT couples feel uncomfortable when they hold hands or share a kiss.

When you're so worried about making others uncomfortable, you're not focusing on your relationship with God, Bitterman said. That's what makes MCCLV so different from other houses of worship.

"It's a place where you can be free," Bitterman said. And that is exactly what Goudy hopes it can be.

"A church is a place to explore one's spirituality, but we believe you have to be fully authentic to do that," Goudy said.

Come a long way

When Goudy became pastor in 1999, attitudes were starkly different, she said. People were so protective of their sexuality that there wasn't even a church directory. LGBT members feared that revelations could result in losing their jobs or custody of their children, she said.

In the past five years, Goudy said she has noticed a change in the attitudes toward the LGBT community -- particularly LGBT-affirming churches -- partially due to the growing LGBT-supportive attitudes and legislation, such as the legalization of gay marriage.

It has had a dual effect. As people saw a surge in acceptance, more were open and forthcoming about their sexual orientations and identities. And, as more people were open, more legislation and protections for LGBT people were put into place.

"I just think there's been such an openness in the past five years in our country. Churches have been catching up, quite frankly," Goudy said. "As more people are open about who they are, they're going to be demanding worshipping places that are accepting of who they are and their families."

Many have found that space in MCCLV.

"This church has been much more welcoming to who we are as a family," Jenn LaTorre said of MCCLV as she stood beside her spouse after a recent Sunday service. "It's a safe place to raise our 13-year-old daughter."

New Hope Celebrates announced that its new 100-foot Rainbow Equality Parade Flag will be making carried from Lambertville into New Hope during this year's Pride Parade, being held on May 20, 2017.

MCCLV isn't alone in welcoming the LGBT community into their houses of worship. Others include Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lehigh Valley, First Presbyterian in Allentown and more.

"I've seen a tremendous change," said Rabbi Carl Choper, executive director of Interfaith Alliance PA, which advocates for social justice and religious liberty. "I've seen more and more mainline churches becoming more accepting (of the LGBT community)."

Choper believes that the Lehigh Valley has been more accepting than most areas.

"My sense in the past few years has been that there were more communities in the Lehigh Valley that were opening and affirming (than most areas in Pennsylvania)," he said.

Still a long way to go

Although churches have come a long way, advocates say there is still work to be done.

Some in the LGBT community say they have noticed a resurgence and strengthening of homophobic rhetoric going back to the 2016 presidential election campaign.

As a result, there has been increased training for Silent Witness Peacekeepers Alliance -- a ministry that blocks out protestors by holding rainbow umbrellas, creating a barrier during pride events.

There was beginning to be less of a need for the peacekeepers, but training started again locally after a protester stood outside of MCCLV in December yelling that LGBT people would "go to hell," Goudy said.

"There is a lot of fear in the LGBT community right now because of the way they see the rhetoric and legislation going," said Amanda Porter, vice president of Renaissance, a transgender support group.

"The more they see (President Trump) openly bad-mouthing or openly not supporting LGBT causes, the more they feel other people will be emboldened to speak up."

There has also been division in other churches that have been less accepting of the LGBT community. The progression toward acceptance has generated a juxtaposition of attitudes even among Lehigh Valley churches, Choper said.

"I've watched as certain denominations have moved to one side while others dug in their heels," he said.

While attitudes have changed, there has been one glaring shortcoming in legislation, according to LGBT supporters. Pennsylvania has yet to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would ban employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Although some workplaces have their own policies, and certain cities have ordinances, it has not been passed as a Pennsylvania law. Movements have sprung up over the years to affect that.

The Pennsylvania Fairness Act updates the Human Relations Act to include gender identity and expression and sexual orientation. The Human Relations Act, originally written in 1955, currently protects people from discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, sex, national origin and disability.

Polls show overwhelming support from Pennsylvanians to update the non-discrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Based on public support, LGBT advocates hope such a measure will clear the state Legislature in the near future.

"I think the will of the people will eventually overcome this discrimination," Renaissance's Porter said. "I consider the people in Washington as representatives of the people. I still believe the people run this county. Eventually, I believe the legislation will reflect the will of the people."

Although the bill did not pass in 2016, it gained support and was reintroduced in May 2017 by Pennsylvania Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny County, as House Resolution 1410. State Sens. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, introduced Senate Bill 613 in that chamber. It marked the seventh time the nondiscrimination legislation has been introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature in 14 years, or in seven consecutive legislative sessions.

Although the progressive nature of MCCLV has been extremely rewarding and given Goudy a sense of integrity, she said, she respects those who choose a different course, noting that it is everyone's right to choose who to include and exclude.

Goudy said the church avoids aligning or advocating one political party or ideology over another. MCCLV's beliefs are not secular in nature, but rather strictly theological, she said.

"(At MCCLV), we believe that God is a God of radical hospitality," she said.

The service

Upon entering MCCLV, newcomers are met with a wave of friendly faces and open arms. Each member is identified by a name tag that includes a gender-specific pronoun.

The Sunday service combines the traditional and modern. The readings and sermon are similar to a traditional service, with the hymns being more contemporary.

The inclusive environment reverberates throughout the building's tall ceilings in Goudy's sermon and in every hymn. Even the taking of communion is unified, with everyone waiting until each person is served before consuming their wafers and grape juice.

On a recent Sunday, the love and spirit of the congregation was palpable.

As Goudy spoke to the congregation -- about 30 people were present this particular day -- some parishioners were moved to tears during the sermon and others raised their hands in praise.

The sermon, titled "Christians & Alcohol," encouraged acceptance without making judgments.

"The point of this series is not to say 'Christians must believe a particular way on these issues' because most of us have certainly had enough of the idea that Christians must believe a particular way," Goudy said as the congregation responded with a laugh and an "Amen!"

"At Metropolitan Community Church we do not hold that the Christian faith necessitates unchanging opinions on hot-button topics. Instead, at MCCLV we believe that a living and active faith will bring people and communities to a prayerful place of disagreement on a variety of issues," she said.

Throughout the service, that acceptance was clearly the theme. All types of couples were able to worship and share their love openly -- whether it be two gay men holding hands during the sermon or a daughter dancing with her father during the final hymn.

"There is a very real miracle that I believe happens Sunday after Sunday as people gather here at the Metropolitan Community Church of Lehigh Valley," Goudy said in her sermon. "Despite being from very different backgrounds, despite holding very different theologies, despite holding a diverse amount of opinions on many issues, despite different ethnicities and incomes and families... Sunday after Sunday worship continues... We are not able to do this on our own, but it is only through God's power to bring us together... We live in a world that is in desperate need of miracles, most especially, the miracle of worshipping together despite disagreement."

As the service concluded, the congregation clapped and sang enthusiastically a song written by the music and worship director, Brian Jones.

"Oh, Lord, you brought us through thick and thin. Through the fire and wind to a better place. You brought us out to bring us in."

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Online:

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Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com