When Lacey Sayers walked into church holding her toddler son on a cold December day, a fellow member wished her good morning and scooped the boy out of her arms with a smile.
That's the kind of welcome Sayers, who is married to a woman, was looking for when she began hunting for a church two years ago. She found it at Metropolitan Community Church of Omaha.
Gay rights supporters say the number of Nebraska and Iowa congregations that actively invite and welcome gays and lesbians has grown in the past decade. The shift, the advocates say, reflects in part the increasing public acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships and same-sex marriage revealed in polls.
Congregations are showing their acceptance through invitations on church websites, marching in gay pride parades and hosting events for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Still, public support for same-sex marriage and relationships remains far from unanimous, and churches are no different. Many churches, while emphasizing the need to love and value all people, including gays and lesbians, consider homosexual acts sinful.
Beth Rigatuso, a longtime Omaha gay rights activist, said even though people in the LGBT community can find more places where they are welcome, there remains a wariness about taking a seat in the pews.
A poll last year by the Pew Research Center showed that an overwhelming share of the LGBT community says society has become more accepting of them in the past decade, but nearly one-third also say they have been made to feel unwelcome in a place of worship.
“If you were slapped in the face by a religion, I think you would close the door, too,” said Rigatuso, former president of Omaha-based Heartland Pride, an LGBT advocacy group.
Sayers, 32, grew up Methodist in southwest Iowa and attended church regularly as a child. She felt at home in her family's church where she went to Sunday school, sang in the choir and learned about a loving Christ.
But as she became an adult, went through the coming out process and moved away from her childhood congregation, she began realizing that not all churches welcome gays and lesbians like her.
“When you hear a lot of things about God judging you,” she said, “you start to think you don't have a place (in church).”
She married Andrea Caniglia-Sayers in Iowa in 2010, and as they started a family they felt a longing to return to church.
She said they knew God loved them and they wanted to find a church where they and their son, Milo, now 18 months old, could hear that message. It was delivered at Metropolitan Community Church, a congregation near 22nd and Leavenworth Streets that has roots in serving the LGBT community, and increasingly has other members as well.
Rigatuso said other places of worship are welcoming the LGBT community partly because gays and lesbians are coming out to their families at a much younger age. Their moms and dads, she said, don't want to hear a message from clergy condemning their children.
At Omaha's Temple Israel, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has demonstrated openness in such ways as performing commitment ceremonies for gay couples.
“We embrace them,” he said. “They are part of the community.”
Two years ago, Countryside Community Church's council approved a resolution designating the church as an “open and affirming” congregation for LGBT people, said the Rev. Eric Elnes, senior pastor. He said his Omaha church has been welcoming for years, and the resolution officially recognized that approach.
The church's website proclaims: “Here, all people are treated as creations made in God's very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class.”
The church hosts monthly meetings of an advocacy group for gays and offers a monthly “LGBT 101” class to help people understand issues affecting the gay community.
The congregation at Walnut Hills United Methodist Church in suburban Des Moines voted about four years ago to become a church that actively welcomes the LGBT community, senior pastor the Rev. Denny Coon said.
Congregation members march and carry a church banner in the Des Moines gay pride parade. Earlier this winter a gay men's choir performed during a Sunday service.
Coon said his congregation accepts gays and lesbians in all aspects of their lives.
“How someone plays out their sexuality, that's how they were made,” Coon said. “We don't see homosexual acts as a sin.”
Disagreement among churches on whether homosexuality is sinful was illustrated during debate two years ago over a City of Omaha measure that granted legal protection from discrimination to Omaha's LGBT residents.
More than 250 religious leaders from across the region signed the Heartland Proclamation, which said in part: “Homosexuality is not a sickness, not a choice, and not a sin. We find no rational biblical or theological basis to condemn or deny the rights of any person based on sexual orientation.”
By contrast, the Nebraska Heritage Coalition, consisting of more than 220 religious representatives, proclaimed in a full-page advertisement in The World-Herald that, “Homosexual activity (not temptation or preference) is explicitly prohibited as sin in multiple passages in the Old and New Testament.”
The group also condemned hatred against anyone based on their sexual preference, and said “all people are created in the image of God.”
Al Riskowski, executive director of the conservative Nebraska Family Alliance, said many churches believe they must stand firm in their opposition to homosexuality, and won't be swayed by poll results or pop culture.
Pope Francis has drawn wide attention for striking a merciful and kind tone regarding gays, saying, “Who am I to judge?”
Francis' words reflect the compassion the Catholic Church has toward gays and lesbians but are not a sign of change in church doctrine on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, said Deacon Tim McNeil, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Rigatuso, the local gay rights activist, said the pope's comments were “incredibly promising,” but the Catholic Church must make major changes to become truly accepting.
“It's (like) trying to move a huge stone.”