Mary Jane Kennedy considers herself a conservative Christian Republican, and she's led Bible studies in her native Mississippi for decades. She's also the mother of two gay sons and one of the faces in a new advertising campaign aimed at softening religious opposition in the Deep South to equal rights for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign is taking on the region's longstanding church-based opposition to homosexuality in a series of groundbreaking television commercials, direct-mail messages and phone-bank operations designed to promote equality and legal protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.
TV commercials will begin airing Monday in Jackson, the state's largest city and prime media market, with Kennedy featured as a mom who struggled to understand her own sons' sexuality and believes God loves them, just like everyone else. The commercials also will be available online, as will banner ads on websites.
Other commercials may follow in Alabama and Arkansas depending on the reception and results of the Mississippi campaign. The Mississippi effort - which will cost $310,000 - is part of an $8.5 million, three-year effort launched six months ago in the three states.
Brad Clark, director of Project One America for Human Rights Campaign, said the commercials are the group's most direct effort yet to confront religious attitudes involving sexual orientation and non-traditional gender identification.
Polls have shown that Mississippi is among the most religious states, with more than half of its 3 million residents belonging to Southern Baptist churches. At the same time, Mississippians are far less likely than the average American to say they know someone who is gay, according to Human Rights Campaign.
"It's the first time we've led with this message, and it's historic for the South," said Clark.
The commercials will begin airing two days before a federal court hearing in Jackson on a Mississippi law that bans same-sex marriage. Opponents of the ban are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the ban from being enforced while a lawsuit seeking to overturn it is pending. In November 2004, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
After a series of recent court decisions, gay couples have the right to marry in 30 states. However, earlier this month a panel of federal judges from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld anti-gay marriage laws in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.
Kennedy, 61, was initially apprehensive about speaking out so publicly about such a private topic, but she said her faith led her to the belief that spreading kindness, love and caring was more important than her own fears.
Justin Kelly of Jackson says the spots could help build acceptance in his home state. The 25-year-old Iraq war veteran is openly gay and will be featured in his Army Reserve uniform in another TV spot during the campaign, called "All God's Children."
"The values that are already in place in Mississippi are what we're looking for: To be friendly, to be open, to have conversations," said Kelly.
The president of the conservative American Family Association, Tim Wildmon, said he doubts advertising will have much of an effect on the attitudes of Mississippi residents in the pews.
"If you're trying to change peoples' fundamental religious views that's a pretty daunting task," said Wildmon, whose Tupelo-based organization owns and operates 194 radio stations in 38 states, including 12 in Mississippi. "For those who take the Bible literally there are some pretty clear scriptural references ... that show homosexuality is unnatural."
The Human Rights Campaign has said it wants to change the "hearts and minds" of people through the campaign, but Wildmon is dubious.
"What's wrong with the hearts and minds of Southerners?" he said.