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Rev. Warren Draws Praise, Protests In Atlanta

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Rick Warren will give the invocation at today's inauguration of Barack Obama. He's the pastor of the Saddleback Church in Southern California, a megachurch with 22,000 members. The conservative Southern Baptist preacher was also the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King holiday celebration in Atlanta yesterday. And his presence there drew some opposition, as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: On the way to give the inaugural prayer, Pastor Rick Warren stopped in the heart of the civil rights movement. He spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., preached. Outside, on a frosty morning, dozens of gay rights picketers gathered in the shadow of this historic place.

(Soundbite of picketers chanting)

Unidentified Picketers: Gay, straight, black, or white, we demand our civil rights.

LOHR: Both black and white protesters joined in holding signs that read, we are all the beloved community, and we still have a dream. Craig Washington, with the Black Gay Rights Coalition in Atlanta, says Warren was the wrong choice for the King celebration.

Mr. CRAIG WASHINGTON (Co-Founder, Black Gay Rights Coalition, Atlanta): He compares same-sex marriage to incest and adults having sex with children. And it's important for people to understand that when we fail to call out bigotry, then we desecrate the legacy of Dr. King and we abandon the dream.

LOHR: The controversy stems in part from Warren's support of California's Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage and from comments he made last year. During yesterday's service, which commemorated King's 80th birthday, the civil rights leader's nephew, Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., said King's dream had not been realized. But Farris said the election of Barack Obama was a giant leap forward, and he defended Warren's right to speak.

(Soundbite of Martin Luther King holiday celebration, Atlanta)

Mr. ISAAC NEWTON FARRIS, JR. (President and CEO, The King Center): And let us remember that followers of Martin Luther King, Jr., hold diverse views on topics like abortion and same-sex marriage. All of the great freedom movements in America are based on free speech. And it's appropriate that we give a fair and courteous hearing to those we may disagree with as we search for common ground to resolve the great conflicts of our times.

LOHR: Warren did get a warm reception from the overflowing crowd, except for a couple of demonstrators who were escorted out after shouting their protests. Warren was undaunted. He announced he wasn't giving the remarks he had prepared, and instead spoke extemporaneously saying King was a model for social justice and a model pastor. But Warren said everyone can pick up that mantle.

(Soundbite of Martin Luther King holiday celebration, Atlanta)

Reverend RICK WARREN (Pastor, Saddleback Church, California): You may never have the adulation, the fame that Dr. Martin Luther King had. But your life is significant, and you can make a significant difference with your life.

LOHR: Rich Warren said churchgoers need to be more faithful and selfless, and pledge to make a commitment to a life of service, just like King did.

(Soundbite of Martin Luther King holiday celebration, Atlanta)

Reverend WARREN: Martin Luther King was a mighty tool in the hand of God. He was a model for millions of us, hundreds of millions of us. But God isn't through. He isn't finished with what he wants to do. And justice is a journey. And we're getting further and further along.

LOHR: After the service, some said they didn't know much about Warren. Quinton Dodds(ph) and Sandra Link(ph) enjoyed his sermon, even though they say they don't agree with his views on gay marriage.

Ms. SANDRA LINK: We all have opinions.

Mr. QUINTON DODDS: Exactly. He's entitled to his opinion. It's just that simple.

Ms. LINK: Yeah.

Mr. DODDS: I disagreed with him, but that's his opinion. He can have that opinion.

LOHR: Millions of Americans are expected to be watching the inauguration today to witness history. And the controversial Rick Warren will be front and center once again. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.