Pastor after pastor spoke at the most recent meeting to condemn the Ashtabula Pride Festival
Boat on sandy beach with Ashtabula Ohio on it

This article first appeared in the Buckeye Flame

An overflow crowd packed the city of Ashtabula’s council chambers on May 20, spilling out into the hallway. 

Despite no official item on the council’s agenda regarding the northeastern Ohio city’s June 15 Pride Festival, residents showed up in large numbers to voice their opinions about the event. 

Prior to the meeting, Ashtabula resident Kelly Lunneberg collected signatures in an attempt to ban anyone under the age of 18 from viewing drag performances, one of the elements of the Pride Festival.

Early Ashtabula Pride Festivals had been held on private property, but the 2023 celebration moved to the Ashtabula County Fairgrounds. And this year, at their May 6 meeting, the City Council endorsed organizers’ request to move the 2024 event to Walnut Beach, a local public park. 

During the public comment portion of the May 20 meeting, Pride organizer Rebekah Beeman told Council that the move to Walnut Beach allowed room for inflatables for children and more room for families to attend. She also said that pictures that were circulated online with the petitions were of drag artists performing for adults in a bar, and not representative of the content that will be on stage at the Pride event. 

“We are 100% stating that this will be a family-friendly event,” Beeman said. 

Jenean Kile of nearby Saybrook Township highlighted that as a theater teacher, her job is to put people in costume and allow them to present a different persona to the audience. 

“That’s what drag is,” Kile told the council. “This [petition] is really about discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”

Parade of pastors

After Kile, the public comments took a biblical and threatening turn. 

David Lettau, pastor of Country Gospel Church, read a passage from Romans 1 about “uncleanness” and then related it to the Pride Festival. 

“What they’re doing is teaching perversion to our children,” Lettau said. “We as a city are responsible for making sure that no decadent and perverse things go on.”

Lettau then made his threat explicit. 

“It’s worthy of death, it says in the Bible,” Lettau said.

No one from the city council challenged his words. 

Later, Pastor Jeff Combs of the First Community Church of God lamented that he was being lumped in with people who hate, especially as he has “nothing but love for people who live any lifestyle” and once “had a gay friend.” He then told the council they would be in violation of state law if they allowed juveniles to be allowed to attend Pride. 

“We will pursue the matter further,” Combs threatened. “This is about protecting children.”

The pastor then, too, grounded his threat in the Bible, citing Luke 17:2, a passage that suggests drowning someone who adversely influences children.

“It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck,” Combs said. “So watch yourselves. We are called to watch over our children.”

Ohio state Rep. Beth Lear (R-Galena) went viral in January for using the same Bible verse to imply that individuals who support trans youth should be drowned. 

John Jones, pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church, first lamented that Pride organizers were treated being treated badly, right before he compared having juveniles at Pride to pedophilia.

Words of support

Multiple speakers condemned the pastors’ comments. 

“I’m being groomed to be afraid of people in my own community,” said Cassie Eaton of Geneva. “We shouldn’t have to be worried to have art in any part of our city.”

Eaton then reminded those opposed to the Pride Festival that they did not have to attend. 

“You don’t have to agree with it,” Eaton said. “You don’t have to be there. You don’t have to fight for us.”

Ashtabula City Solicitor Cecelia Cooper reminded the public that they couldn’t bar a drag performance because of what they thought would happen. 

“You can’t preemptively prevent somebody from saying something because you think you know what they might say, or you think you know what they might do,” Cooper said. 

City Council President John S. Roskovics repeatedly asked council if they wanted to make a motion regarding the Pride Festival. His requests were met with silence.