Controversial Minister Opposed For Rights Post

December 01, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

The thing that gives some people the willies about the Rev. Dana Walter Collett is not so much what the self-proclaimed conservative doesbut what he says.

Collett, 37, refuses to alter his Southern Baptist idiom when he addresses people outside his congregation.

So when County Executive Charles I. Ecker nominated him to the county human rights commission, several people complained that Collett's strong expression of his religious convictions crossed the barrier between church and state.

Some opposed Collett's nomination because his congregation put blue and pink crosses on the church lawn to represent the number of abortions in Maryland.

Others wonder how Collett could say he would rigorously enforce county law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual preference yet still support a state law that makes the practice of homosexuality illegal.

After Collett's confirmation hearing Nov. 18, the three County Council Democrats -- Paul R. Farragut, D-4th; C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd; and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st -- said privately they would vote tomorrow night to reject his nomination.

"We are talking about a quasi-judicial position, and it would be very difficult for him to separate his strong religious views from the need to be totally objective in upholding the law," Farragut said after the hearing. Collett is in Farragut's district.

"I don't know how much partisan politics plays into it," said Collett, a registered Republican. "It apparently did not matter that I have overwhelming popular support -- and not just from my church. It apparently did not matter than I have an excellent track record in trying to improve race relations."

Collett says it also apparently doesn't matter that he has vowed to uphold the human rights law and has "lived in a pluralistic religious environment" as a special forces chaplain in the Army reserve.

"I know what it is to be afraid from jumping out of airplanes, and I learned a lot about administration and applying equal-employment opportunity guidelines" in personnel matters, Collett says of his Green Beret training.

Because his credentials are so solid, Collett says, his rejection as a commission nominee must be motivated by only two reasons: "They either disagree with my religious opinions, or it's partisan politics --the second time in five years a conservative (nominee to the human rights commission) has been rejected by Democrats."

The message, Collett says, is that ifyou're a conservative, don't apply: "If you don't agree with us, you're not open-minded."

"I find it ironic," Collett said, laughing, "that I am being rejected on political or religious grounds -- two ofthe categories that the law makes illegal as grounds for discrimination."

From Collett's standpoint, it is his faith as a "Bible-believing Christian" -- "the knowledge that every person is a special creation equal in worth, dignity and value before God" -- that qualifies him for service on the commission.

"The issue is whether a person's rights have been violated," he says. "Whether you're liberal or conservative, you can still decide a case on its merits. If the three Democrats can decide fairly, why do they think I'm incapable of that?"

The answer, Collett believes, is that his conservative beliefs aretoo discordant for some council members.

And then there is the language barrier. When Collett says he was "a black sheep in the family," he means that as a teen-ager, he was a "typical church-goer, rebelling against scriptural principles, who had no personal relationship in the Lord."

Named Dana in honor of the minister who converted his mother and Walter in honor of his father, Collett was called Dana most of his life. He changed to Walter after his father died.

"Danawas a man's name when I was growing up," he says, "but in the '70s and '80s, it was more common for women." Since a majority of Southern Baptists -- including Collett -- "do not favor women pastors," he says, he wanted to make sure people seeing his name for the first time knew he was a man. His signature now is "D. Walter Collett."

Collett began college by planning to join his brother in the banking business. But in the middle of a required freshman course on the life of Jesus, Collett felt a call to the ministry.

While in seminary in NewOrleans, he came "face to face with segregation" -- an experience that "makes me more sensitive about the ways we discriminate against each other," he says.

The experience was so powerful, Collett said, that when he

took over the all-white First Baptist Church of Savage in May 1978, he "deliberately, intentionally and knowingly went knocking on the doors of black people" and invited them to church.

During his four years in Savage, he integrated the congregation and "the church grew phenomenally. The stewardship tripled and the membership doubled," he said.

After spending a month in the Philippines, where he started three congregations in December 1981, Collett felt called to start a congregation in west Columbia.

He and a core group of eight families began Covenant Baptist Church on Nov. 7, 1982. In the past nine years, its membership has grown to 427 and the budget has swelled to more than half a million dollars.

Collett said he hasno personal animosity against council members who may vote against him tomorrow.

"You can't be too mad at somebody for voting their conscience," he says. "If we don't like that vote, we could always go to the polls and change it."

Michael J. Clark contributed to this story

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