The new pastor at St. John United Church of Christ in the eastern Missouri town of St. Clair doesn't play softball, but members of his church do. Or at least they did until their pastor's sexuality prompted a boycott within their church league.
The Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell is bisexual. When pastors at three of the churches in the league found out, they decided their teams wouldn't take the field against the team from Darnell's church, saying the pastor's lifestyle goes against their Christian beliefs.
St. John players decided to quit the six-team league rather than ruin things for everyone else.
"It certainly is very upsetting, especially in 2012, that this is an issue," Darnell said Wednesday. "It's very disappointing but quite frankly not too surprising given the nature of this community -- it's a pretty conservative area."
The dust-up in St. Clair is emblematic of an issue that is increasingly on the front-burner following President Barack Obama's announcement earlier this month that he supports gay marriage. In Bible Belt states like Missouri, the issue is far from resolved.
St. Clair is a rural community of 5,000 residents, about 45 miles southwest of St. Louis. Darnell, 27, was hired in October to lead the 130-member church, his first job out of seminary.
Darnell is a member of the local ministerial alliance and said other pastors in the alliance are aware he is bisexual. Just as the softball season was about to begin, league commissioner Johnny Dover, who is pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, called St. John's coach, who confirmed Darnell's bisexuality.
Dover, the Rev. Wyatt Otten of Liberty Baptist Church and the Rev. Ben Kingston of Bethel Baptist in nearby Lonedell decided they wouldn't participate in games against St. John. They informed the church earlier this month, just before the softball season began.
"We are not against people," Kingston said. "We are against sin. That's what we stand against.
"As a church and a pastor and a Christian, I believe that lifestyle is outside the boundaries of what God allows," Kingston said.
Dover declined comment. There was no answer at Otten's church.
Darnell said he has reached out to Church of Christ congregations and other sympathetic churches in the area about forming their own softball league, or at least playing in a tournament.
"The reason I've been willing to go public with this is it needs to go challenged," Darnell said. "Otherwise folks think it's all right to do this sort of thing and get away with this sort of exclusion."