Hangin' with the Church Lady

This soldier of God is on a South Florida crusade

Our eyes met across a crowded room. I was speaking. She was listening. Her yellow bouffant hair didn't move a wit as she nodded and smiled at almost everything I said. It helped.

About 60 people had shown up at the Sun-Sentinel building in downtown Fort Lauderdale for a panel discussion put on by the local chapter of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. It concerned a column in which I'd reported that Republican Congressman Mark Foley is gay. The crowd was friendly to me, none more so than the nodding woman. But she didn't quite fit there, like June Cleaver at a pride parade. Afterward, she came up and told me she liked the Foley column. I thanked her before she said something to the effect of: "I believe that we need to identify homosexuals in public office and expose them for what they are."

The McCarthyesque interjection jarred me. I looked at the tag on her dress: Margaret Hostetter. I knew that name. That's Broward County's Church Lady.

Hostetter is one of the most aggressive antigay activists in South Florida. She led a campaign in 2001 to reinstate the Boy Scouts in Broward's public schools after the School Board ejected the organization for discriminating against homosexuals. Last year, she fought to keep the board from partnering with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Riding a wave of publicity, Hostetter unsuccessfully ran for the School Board last fall, promising to end all "special rights" for gay people. The staunch Christian Coalitioner now sits on the school district's diversity committee, where she steadfastly thwarts the dreaded homosexual agenda at every turn.

I had heard from journalist friends that she was a one-track moralist, known for berating School Board officials in public. A gay Democratic club recently deemed her a "conservative hothead." But she has largely remained something of a mystery publicly. Though Nexis shows that she's appeared in 57 articles in the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel since 2001, none of them was really about her; they just included her stock antigay quotes.

Intrigued, I called her last week and arranged to meet. On the phone, I learned her passion has run beyond the political, and her family life -- a high horse of the Christian Right -- has been less than ideal. She has two grown children from different marriages and is twice-divorced. Rather than the shrill pronouncements I expected, she seemed to have an almost wry sense of humor. Right away, it was apparent that she was more complicated than her billing.

But still, she's as straight as the Sears Tower. She said she stays away from bars, though she has an occasional drink of wine. Neither seen nor touched an illegal drug during her 57 years, unless you count a serious religious experience as a hallucinogen. Hostetter mainlines Jesus, who she said once spoke directly to her and another time gave her orders through the Jerry Bruckheimer movie Pearl Harbor.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. I met her on the evening of June 30, 11 days after the panel discussion, at a Broward sheriff's substation in Lauderdale Lakes. She was attending a gathering of the Jerome E. Gray Republican Club, which is made up of a small but active group of black men and women.

I arrived a little late to find Hostetter sitting front and center, her posture as immaculate as her old-fashioned professional attire. There were about 15 members in attendance. At the head of the room sat club Vice President O'Neal Dozier, who ended the meeting with a word about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Texas sodomy law. "Sodomy is not a right in the Constitution -- or in the Bible," lamented Dozier, who is pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach.

Hostetter nodded and smiled.

When the meeting adjourned, she introduced me to one of her young acolytes, a fellow real estate agent named Jason Morales. "I think she's got a lot of good ideas," Morales, a 21-year-old University of Florida graduate, said of Hostetter. "I want to speak out about issues, and I'm not afraid to do it. I believe that following the Scripture will lead me in the path, along with guidance from people like Margaret."

What issues?

"Homosexuality," he said. "And health care."

Hostetter nudged him and whispered, "Abortion."

"And abortion," he echoed. "Definitely abortion. That's the biggest one, really."

Soon, Hostetter was chatting with Dozier, who is a favorite of Gov. Jeb Bush. The governor spoke at Dozier's church this past Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and, in 2001, appointed the pastor as the only black member on the state Judicial Nominating Committee.

Dozier cuts a compelling physical figure: tall, impossibly young-looking for his 54 years, impeccably fit, nattily dressed, with a pointed, razor-sharp flattop. He looks like a man who gets things done, and he is: In addition to his calling as a minister, Dozier briefly played outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears, fought in Vietnam, and earned a law degree. Not bad for the son of a South Carolina sharecropper.

I listened to the conversation between the pastor and Hostetter, who are old comrades in arms:

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